When Waris Hassan was growing up in Kenya, school was a faraway dream. Her parents could only afford to educate one child. While her older sister attended school and her mother sold tomatoes, ten-year-old Waris cared for her younger siblings. Sometimes, she walked a mile or two to get water for her family.
Waris was thirteen when her family immigrated to Winooski, Vermont. Acclimating to the American public school system was hard. “I didn’t speak any English whatsoever,” she recalls. “I didn’t know what year it was or how to spell my name. I was the only black person in the eighth grade.” After a year of intensive English classes, Waris slowly became more comfortable in school.
After graduating from high school, Waris took classes at the Community College of Vermont for a few semesters. In Spring 2017, she enrolled at Castleton. Again, she had to adjust to a new environment. “I’d never been away from home before,” she says. “I’m a shy person and an introvert, so I had to get out of my comfort zone to talk to people and make friends.”
Despite these misgivings, Waris threw herself into college life. When she needed help with statistics or writing, she visited the Academic Support Center. A social work major, she added a second major in sociology and a minor in women’s and gender studies. In her free time, she joined the Badminton Club. Remembering what it was like to learn a new language, she volunteered as a conversation partner with an international student.
As the semesters passed, Waris gained confidence in her academic abilities. During her junior year, she applied to Castleton’s McNair Scholars Program. This federally funded program prepares first-generation, low-income students, as well as those from under-represented backgrounds, for graduate study. McNair accepted her. Last summer, Waris completed independent research on cultural assimilation in immigrant college students through the McNair program. “I had a lot of fun doing independent research,” Waris says. “Before I joined McNair, I never thought I could do research, let alone do it by myself.”
Amanda Richardson, Director of Castleton’s McNair Scholars program, is impressed with Waris’ resilience and personal growth. “Other students can learn from Waris that focusing on a path and utilizing your available resources to the best of your ability can lead to achievement beyond what you may originally believe you are capable of in an unfamiliar environment,” says Richardson.
Through McNair, Waris has formed many strong friendships. “She is respected as a peer and brings her sharp, dry sense of humor to the group, which everyone enjoys,” adds Richardson.
Giving back to her peers comes naturally to Waris. This summer, Waris also served as a TRIO Texting Mentor. In this role, she helped incoming first-generation college students acclimate to life at Castleton. “In all my observations of Waris, I’ve been struck by her calm eagerness to understand other people’s experiences and cultures and her empathic listening skills that allow her to move towards that understanding,” says Becky Eno, Castleton’s Academic Counselor.
Today, it’s hard to remember that education wasn’t always a part of Waris’ future. The young woman who entered eighth grade without knowing any English is a double major with a strong GPA. She is enjoying her internship in the Victim Advocacy program at the Rutland State’s Attorney’s Office. After graduation, she looks forward to earning a master’s in social work. During graduate school, she would like to research cross-cultural differences in the long-term effects of child abuse. Eventually, she hopes to pursue a counseling career in the school or criminal justice system.
Waris hopes other first-generation students will take advantage of all college offers. “Get out of your comfort zone – do things you normally wouldn’t,” she urges. “Take classes that have nothing to do with your major. You’ll get to know yourself more.”
– Dorothy A. Dahm