By Debra Kennard, Board of Directors
Like many young children, Omida Shahab had a favorite piece of clothing. Most adults don’t know why this sparkly belt or that superhero shirt becomes the target of profound childhood adoration, but most have also been in the presence of such true love. Omida, now a young adult, sees irony in her fascination with her favorite—an “All-American Girl” shirt—because she remembers having a lot of questions about what exactly that meant for her.
Omida is a first-generation college student of parents who moved to the U.S. as refugees. She knows over the years some have wanted to label her as “this” or “that,” but she wants people to realize she and countless other students are “this” and “that”…and so much more. And most importantly, she wants you to see joy in stories of struggle and challenge.
Omida was always good at school. And she loved the library—her local library was one of the first places she went when her family moved to St. Louis, and it wasn’t long before she spent so much time there that the staff knew her by name. Omida translated her love of books and learning to her public school experience, which she found a great help in adjusting to her new home. She was surrounded by a lot of different people and some, like her, were trying to learn English. She didn’t feel alone.
Despite the daunting challenge of navigating the college application, admission, and financial aid process at the end of high school, Omida believed college was the way to “make it in this world” and particularly to make sure her parents’ sacrifices were worth it. Her high school counselor connected her to The Scholarship Foundation of St. Louis, and she found a team ready to answer her questions and guide her through the steps.
Omida’s first semester of college felt like a saga of both tragedy and triumph. The straight-A high school student found herself on academic probation and questioning her ability to persist through college. Just as soul-shaking that semester was her reaction and involvement in St. Louis events surrounding the murder of Michael Brown, Jr. She continued examining herself, her privileges, inequalities in society’s systems and structures, and began imagining the ways she could be of great service to her community. She started to feel the power of action and activism, and she particularly began to see a path to her place in it.
She defined a new track for herself that included advocacy training and education for a vocation in public health equity. The Scholarship Foundation team helped her see that academic problems don’t have to be an end to the story. Omida pushed herself to balance her new course of study, jobs, and volunteer work and soon landed on the Dean’s List at St. Louis University.
“College is not for only the ‘traditional’ student. There is no one path, or even a straight path through college,” she reflected. “I want people to dismantle that idea and especially for the students to know they aren’t alone; they aren’t the only one.”
The exhibit Know Us: Stories of St. Louis Students Finding Their Way will be on display at the Missouri History Museum at 5700 Lindell, St. Louis through March 29, 2020. For more information about the project and the exhibit, visit sfstl.org/KnowUs.