Hudda Ibrahim started at St. Cloud Technical and Community College in 2007, six months after arriving in the United States.
A refugee from Somalia, she felt unprepared and disoriented on campus. Still, after she earned her master's degree last summer, there was nowhere else she wanted to be. As an instructor, adviser and a mentor to college-bound Somali girls, Ibrahim has come full circle in helping immigrant students find their stride.
"I have been there and done it so I understand these students right away," said Ibrahim.
Ibrahim came to the U.S. after Kenya and Ethiopia, where, in a remote village without a health clinic, she saw her mother die during childbirth.
As a newcomer to campus, she was overwhelmed, caught "between two worlds." Her English needed work. She wasn't sure how to go about applying for financial aid or which courses to take. And, grasping for a sense of direction in her adopted land, she found herself changing her major a couple of times, chasing the dreams of friends who had lived in America longer.
"It's so hard for students like me to say, 'I came to this country yesterday, and today I know exactly what I want to do,' " she said.
She was headed for a career in nursing, but her heart was in politics and writing. She joined the student senate. She carried a journal with her everywhere. After transferring to the College of St. Benedict in St. Joseph, she pursued a double major in English and peace studies.
In Ronald Pagnucco's class on political violence, Ibrahim was a top student — effortlessly, he thought. Only later did she confide in him that she read some of the dense scientific texts three times, pausing again and again to look up words in the dictionary.
Ibrahim landed a spot in the competitive international peace studies master's program at Indiana's University of Notre Dame, where she wrote her thesis on finding a nonviolent solution to the conflict in Somalia. She interned at a Washington, D.C., nonprofit that promotes dialogue between Palestinian and Jewish women.
She could have stayed on the East Coast but was drawn back to St. Cloud, where she felt the growing Somali community needed her.
She teaches a diversity and social justice class at St. Cloud Technical and Community College. There, she also serves as an adviser to foreign-born students, helping them handle some of the hurdles she once faced on that campus.
She leads the nonprofit Central Minnesota Community Empowerment Organization, which she co-founded to support Somali girls and push them to embrace leadership roles. At two high schools in the St. Cloud district, where Somali students have decried bullying, she is launching a violence prevention program. She is also the editor-in-chief of a popular website offering news from Somalia and the Somali diaspora. And she is working on turning her master's thesis into a book.
"Hudda really is quite remarkable in what she's accomplished," Pagnucco said.