Student Voices: Why the UW should consider adding a Somali studies program

For Ahlaam Ibraahim, freshman year of college felt more like a full-time public-relations job than the start of an educational journey.

(Editor’s note: This is the fifth essay we’re publishing as part of Education Lab’s Student Voices program. Our Student Voices columnists are high-school and college students writing about education issues that matter to them. Know a student with a story to tell about school? Email Education Lab’s engagement editor, Dahlia Bazzaz: dbazzaz@seattletimes.com.)

For most people, college means finding a new place to call home. But for students like me, who are black and Muslim, it can feel less like home and more like a full-time public-relations job.

Almost a third of U.S. Muslims identify as black, according to a 2017 report from the Pew Research Center. But you wouldn’t know that if you attended the University of Washington. In my first day at UW last fall, I noticed quickly that I was the only black and Muslim student in most of my classes — something I had never experienced while attending Rainier Beach High School a few miles away. (Excluding English, Somali is the second most-spoken language at home among students in Seattle Public Schools, behind Spanish.) And at Rainier Beach, people didn’t stare at me as I walked to class, which is intimidating.

When I wasn’t defending my religion, my peers were asking me if I was a pirate because of my Somali heritage.


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One of the ways the UW has started to combat ignorance is by requiring all students to take one diversity course. This sounds amazing until you’re in one of them. During fall quarter, I was taking a gender studies course and one day the professor started a discussion on misogynistic mentality. She put up an image of a Muslim woman wearing a burqa next to a woman wearing a bikini. This comparison was supposed to indicate that both of their clothing choices were influenced by men. The professor also highlighted how some women think from a misogynistic perspective since they’re taught to do so. I agreed with the professor, but pointed out that the burqa could be worn for religious purposes and not for a man….

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