Rainier Beach graduate Ahlaam Ibraahim got a full scholarship to the University of Washington. The 18-year-old Somali American has started a group to help students with application and financial-aid paperwork. She wants others to believe, “If Ahlaam can do it, so can I.”
People often gape openly at Ahlaam Ibraahim. Covered from head to foot in a hijab, the college freshman and daughter of Somali immigrants has grown accustomed to stares from fellow students on the University of Washington campus, just as she did at Rainier Beach High School when she enrolled there four years ago.
But in her entrepreneurial spirit, Ahlaam, 18, is as American as they come.
This fall, the double major in business and education put her ambition to work by creating a group to help other East African high-school kids navigate the application-and-financial-aid gauntlet.
Most of the 50 young men and women who have come to early meetings of Educating the Horn will be, like Ahlaam, the first in their families to go to college.
“Ever since we’re young kids, our parents have been telling us they came to this country for an education,” said Ahlaam, whose father drives a cab and mother stays at home caring for four younger children.
Her drive to reach out and organize when many kids are more interested in their social calendars was no surprise to Rainier Beach teacher Colin Pierce. He described Ahlaam as an uncanny mix of wonkish activism and teen girlhood.
“She is definitely a mover and shaker, with an incredible sense of how you mobilize people,” Pierce said. “I could see her becoming a politician.”
Last week’s election of Donald Trump to the presidency, after a campaign driven in part by anti-immigrant rhetoric, caused only a momentary blip for Ahlaam.
“I woke up at 3 a.m. and lay there staring up at the sky, thinking about how my life’s going to change,” she said. “I was scared for my safety — a lot of people felt that way. But Donald Trump affected so many minority groups that it gave us a connection, which makes us powerful.”
Born in Seattle, Ahlaam spent her elementary years in Islamic schools. Rainier Beach was her first experience with public education, and initially, it shocked her. Casual attitudes toward authority, free-form cursing, disrespect for elders — all of it left Ahlaam speechless.
Yet Beach’s small size also fostered a sense of family and encouraged her to take a full slate of International Baccalaureate courses. Last spring she learned that she’d earned a full scholarship to the UW. Only later did she realize how unusual that was.
“Not a lot of people who look like me are getting these scholarships, or even applying for them,” she said. “So I want them to know, ‘If Ahlaam can do it, so can I.’ ”
The next meeting of Educating the Horn will be from 2 to 6 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 26, at East African Community Services, and it is designed as a submission party to help students fill out paperwork, edit college essays and learn of scholarship opportunities.
The group does not have a website yet. But those with questions may contact Ahlaam via her Twitter account, @ahlamrocks.