Fatima Ahmad is not your stereotypical 17-year-old. Sure, she uses teenage phrases like “that was insane” to describe interesting experiences and she loves words such as “ginormous.” But she is also obsessed with libraries, is considered by her friends as a “curator of humans” and has some very atypical heroes: Warren Buffett and U.S. Bancorp CEO Richard Davis.

“I am a very, very big fan of Warren Buffett,” said Ahmad, who will graduate from Southwest High School this spring. “He’s really smart and kind of funny. I’ve read all about him. I’m like, how are you so good at what you do?”

As for being able to write to Davis after she became a U.S. Bank Scholar as a participant in the Wallin Education Partners of Minneapolis program: “Oh my gosh, writing to him is like I kind of indirectly met him in person,” she said. “I just find the whole financial world so fascinating, even though I don’t know that much about it yet.”

Because of financial support and “intrusive advising” from the Wallin program, Ahmad will get her chance to learn all about it and maybe even achieve the dream she mentioned in her graduation speech last week, “to become the female Warren Buffett and keep people thinking outside the box.”

It’s a big dream for the daughter of a Somali couple who came to the United States with $30 in their pockets.

Ahmad’s father fled war in Somalia and the couple met in Pakistan before coming to Minneapolis. Her father had dreamed of going to college himself, but instead decided to focus on making sure his daughter did. Ahmad can still remember walking from their home near Dinkytown and having her dad point to the University of Minnesota campus and say, “Fatima, that is where you are going to end up.”

That dream will become reality in the fall because of the Wallin program, which was started by former Medtronic CEO Winston Wallin and his wife, Maxine. The program was designed to pull together businesses and individuals to send low- and middle-income students to college.

Of this year’s 132 new college students, about 59 percent are students of color. The average family taxable income of the families is $22,974; 63 percent are the first in their family to attend college.

To give these new college students help, the Wallin program closely mentors them through a staff adviser over the course of four years to make sure they stay on track.

“We want to be working with students close enough so you can anticipate an issue before it happens,” said Susan Basil King, executive director of Wallin Education Partners. “I think especially if you are a first-generation college student you don’t have parents who have been there and done that.”

Because of that strong relationship with students, the six-year graduation rate has risen to 91 percent among Wallin Scholars.

Elizabeth Juarez Diaz, 20, said that her adviser helped her get back on track when her grades dipped and she became dejected. Juarez Diaz will be a junior in St. Catherine University’s nursing program next year. She is the daughter of immigrants and came to the country speaking no English at age 7.

Though neither had graduated from high school, “my parents always had an idea of how valuable education was to advancement in life,” said Juarez Diaz. “They have really big hopes for me.”

Juarez Diaz said she decided to become a nurse after seeing a medical team save the life of her premature brother. To win a Wallin scholarship, which is the only way her family could have afforded tuition, Juarez Diaz wrote an essay about overcoming financial hardships and poor grades because she spoke little English and about wanting to succeed and provide for her younger siblings.

“I feel an education is really opening doors for me,” she said.

Last week, Ahmad was getting ready for prom and looking forward to an internship and going to college next fall. Her friends call her a “curator of humans” because she likes to bring people of different backgrounds together in a room, even if it makes them uncomfortable at first. So attending a large university will expose her to even more new people.

“I love networking with people,” Ahmad said. “I’m a very social person. I like to hear people’s stories.”

Asked where she’d like to be in 10 years, Ahmad replied: “I want to be a pretty cool mother.”

She also hesitantly acknowledged she wouldn’t mind ending up working on Wall Street, though she doesn’t want to broadcast it too much.

“That’s a big statement,” she said. “We’ll see. I’m hopeful that I’ll wake up every morning and say, ‘Yep, I’m doing something I really like and I’m changing some aspect of the world.’ ”

 

jtevlin@startribune.com 612-673-1702