Educating the Horn: Paving a path to college for Somali youth

The author, right, and her friend Ifrah Abshir, at graduation from Rainier Beach High School last spring. (Courtesy photo)
The author, right, and her friend Ifrah Abshir, at graduation from Rainier Beach High School last spring. (Courtesy photo)

I recently took a trip to Minnesota, home of one of the biggest Somali-diaspora communities in the world. American survey data shows that 1 in 3 Somali Americans live in Minnesota.

I’ve never been to Somalia, but I would love to think Minneapolis is mini version of what the country can be. I was really inspired by my community and the amazing work they were accomplishing. There were many successful Somali businesses, clinics and Somali charter schools. I visited Karmel Square, a huge Somali mall in Minneapolis, and was amazed with how many different business ventures Somalis had. There is this stereotype that most Somali businesses are the same, but when I went to Karmel, I saw the total opposite.

The Somali people in Minnesota were hungry for success, and simply being around them and hearing their ideas, I could feel that spirit.

It got me thinking about my own Somali community in Seattle. Although I’m proud of my community, I believe we can grow. This motivated me to do something to help.

I came across a post on Twitter about a literacy campaign that took place in Somalia in the late 1970’s. I started researching and learned that back in the day, Somalia’s literacy rate was as low as three percent. The president at the time, Siyaad Barre, launched a literacy campaign. He sent teachers, students, and professionals to areas in need of help. What I loved the most about this campaign was how passionate Somali people were to learn. This campaign was a success and the literacy rate climbed to over 55 percent. Learning his made me so proud of my country and community, and inspired me to launch a campaign of my own: “Educating the Horn”.

Just like literacy back in the 70’s was vital element to success that many people lacked, having a college degree is key to being someone in Seattle in the 21st century.

According to a new report by the Boston Consulting group and the Washington Roundtable, there will be 740,000 job openings in Washington state in the next five years. But the majority of those job openings will be filled by workers with who pursued higher education or have training. So clearly, doing post-secondary education is going to be a near necessity to have a stable job in the upcoming years.

The “Educating the Horn” campaign aims to encourage and assist Somali youth in pursuing higher education by connecting Somali youth with Somali college students and professionals who can help them on their college applications. The campaign will also help with career researching, professional and self-development. The campaign hopes to increase the percentage of Somali youth in higher education. In the long term, I hope this increases the number of successful Somali people here, educating-the-horn-1-3but also leads to people from the diaspora going back to Somalia to help rebuild it.

I have selfish reasons for pursuing this: I’m a competitive person and I always want my community to be the best at everything. Attending Seattle Public Schools and now the University of Washington has made me realize my community is struggling to make it into higher education. I don’t see many Somali people applying and attending college, which breaks my heart.

Last year when I was applying to colleges and scholarships, I struggled myself. As a first generation college student, I had to go through the process without much help. Because of that tough experience, I wanted to make sure other Somali youth going through the college process don’t have such a struggle.

My community brings so much to the table, Somali youth are Muslim, Black and come from immigrant families. Their experience, stories and way of life are so unique and can help shape college campuses for the better. Do our colleges and universities recognize the importance of having multi-identity students, and the value they hold? According to the Somali Student Association, the University of Washington’s three college campuses only have 250-300 Somali students attending. That’s surprising since the Somali community is the largest refugee community in Seattle, with thousands of college-age youth.

In this campaign, I hope to create the a dialogue between college institutions and the Somali community, in order to increase that number.  

To launch the campaign, I’ll be hosting monthly college prep workshops in the Seattle area. As the application deadlines get closer, they’ll be held weekly.

The first workshop is this Saturday at Rainier Beach Library, from 2 to 5 p.m. This one is specifically for young women and girls. The following week will be for the boys, at the Columbia City library. In both cases, there will be East african college students and professionals there to help the youth with college applications. You can register here.

“I came to this country for you to get an education”— it seems to be a universal mantra for parents in the Somali diaspora. They left their country and comfort of their home to give their kids a better chance in life through education. Let’s make them proud.



  1. I am an adjunct professor at a couple of nearby community colleges. Is there anything I can do to help your efforts? If so, please contact me, thank you!

  2. Congratulations to Mrs. Ahlaam for such a brilliant scheme to give the Somali youth in the US the chance for higher education. This ultimately leads to more productive communities, decreased crime and diminished risk of falling into the entrapment of extremist ideology.

  3. This is such an amazing idea. We need more people like you to better our communities and inspire the youth. It’s like you said lets make our parents proud. Inshallah
    Love from London. You go girl!!!!

  4. Alaam, This is such important work! We need youth from many backgrounds to help us live well in our globalized world! As a nurse educator I agree with you and would like to support your efforts at helping Somali youth be successful in higher education. Please let us know how we can help your important work! Kind regards, Robin

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.