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The Joy of Circling Back

Awale Osman wears a blue shirt and smiles in front of a hedgeFor a young man born in a Kenyan refugee camp and immigrating to the U.S. at age 12 through the persistent efforts of his hard-working mother, to now be chosen as one of 31 young Fellows from 25 countries to participate in the 2017 World Innovation Summit for Education (WISE) Learners’ Voice Program may seem unlikely. And for Awale (“Wally”) Osman ’15, it is “surreal.” But this opportunity is one of many that have energized him.

And, for him, this year’s conference topic is very close to home—Global Forced Migration and Refugee Crisis.

Osman has just returned from the first residential session, held in Athens, Greece, where the Fellows had a chance to study how Greece was handling its own refugee crisis and the challenges that affect a refugee community. The group heard from established experts on the topic, studied where crises were occurring, and proposed possible solutions. They heard from those working “on the ground” and did volunteer work with individuals having to go through the process of seeking asylum. The session in Athens (“an extraordinary experience,” says Osman) and a second residential session, to be convened during the summer in Madrid, Spain, will culminate in the WISE conference in Doha in November.

As Osman looks back on the many opportunities he has been granted, he is consistently motivated to give back. He mentions his ESL (English as a Second Language) teachers in the U.S., who played a pivotal role in conquering his first major barrier (and that of most refugees)—language. Those teachers also put him in touch with Boys & Girls Club, where he became involved; Upward Bound, which prepared him for college; and TRiO/Student Support Services, which helped him persist in earning his bachelor’s degree. These are part of the Federal TRiO programs funded through the U.S. Department of Education and focusing on providing comprehensive academic support, integrated learning courses, learning communities, academic English enhancement, and leadership development for low- to moderate-income, first-generation college students and students with disabilities.

Awale Osman with TRiO studentsOsman sees these TRiO programs as the “main pillars” that helped him grow personally and professionally. They enabled him to set goals and find connections to resources. They evaluated his progress, held him accountable, and served as a source of emotional support. And they kept him connected, even as he worked to support his family (most of whom now live in the States).

At Augsburg, more opportunities opened up. The McNair Scholars program helped Osman prepare for doctoral studies; professor Adriane Brown, director of the Women’s Resource Center and director of gender, sexuality, and women’s studies (GSWS), mentored him during his undergraduate research experience; and professor Bob Groven (communication studies, Honors) mentored him as he became increasingly involved in debate, leading to an internship with the Minnesota Urban Debate League to launch the Somali Debate Initiative. The first of its kind in the nation, the initiative enables Somali middle and high school students to debate policies that directly affect the Somali community. Osman also gives Groven credit for getting him his first professional career after graduation—serving as a TRiO Student Services advisor at Normandale Community College, thereby allowing him to provide others the same kind of support and opportunities that had been afforded him.

Osman with TRiO/SSS students at Normandale. Osman stands to talk to a round table full of students
Osman with TRiO/SSS students at Normandale.

Augsburg’s coursework, Osman says, was crucial in shaping his critical thinking skills, particularly in decision-making. To whom should we be listening? How can we be lifting up these voices? He applies these skills in his work at the Bush Foundation, where he was granted a three-year stint as a Ron McKinley Philanthropy Fellow on the Community Innovations team. As a Community Innovation Associate, Osman is responsible for implementing projects and making grants that inspire and enable communities to create innovative solutions to their challenges.

He loves the idea of “circling back”—to help others as he himself was helped—especially through the WISE Learners’ Voice Program. Through his involvement, he now finds himself in a position to help effect change worldwide, both in attempts to revise the narrative about immigration, and to co-lead projects to build pathways for learning and understanding through community problem-solving that centers on the people most affected by the issue. “I’m excited to incorporate what I’m learning into my work and share those learnings widely in my network,” says Osman.

Osman sees hope in efforts of leaders like U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, who has worked on refugee issues in the past and is already working on long-term solutions.

In the coming years, Osman intends to work as a leader within the philanthropic community, and at some point, to make his way back to the classroom as a professor in communications. When possible, he will carve out some time for play—preferably shaping up at a local CrossFit, taking in a movie, or traveling for fun.

—by Cheryl Crockett ‘89