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A Long, Unlikely Road to Stanford

Audio

Aired 6/13/11

Thousands of San Diego Unified high school seniors will graduate around the city today. One grad's walk across the stage is part of a long journey from a refugee camp to Stanford University.

— On the last Friday of the school year, seniors at Crawford Invention and Design Educational Academy in City Heights are lined up for a barbecue. Later in the afternoon they’ll rehearse for graduation. Like most high school grads, they’ll hear from their valedictorian, Idris Ahmed, whose speech is ready to go.

Idris Ahmed (center), 18, sits with his friends during the Crawford Invention and Design Educational Academy senior barbecue, June 10, 2011.
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Above: Idris Ahmed (center), 18, sits with his friends during the Crawford Invention and Design Educational Academy senior barbecue, June 10, 2011.

“The message will basically be that even though we’re departing ways there’s still like a lot to do in life,” he said.

That’s saying something considering what Ahmed has already done. He is going to Stanford in the fall and is one of San Diego Unified’s six Gates Millennium Scholars. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation chooses 1,000 seniors from across the country every year. They get full financial aid for four years of college. If they choose areas like the sciences, education, engineering or computer science their graduate studies are covered, too.

These accomplishments are impressive on their own, but their distance from where this Somali refugee began life could be considered staggering.

“My journey into life was marked by suffering and blood shed that has yet to subside," reads the autobiographical essay that was part of Ahmed's senior portfolio. "Houses were burned down, schools were ravaged and bullets would go flying through the houses in the middle of the night. It was unsafe to be outside and my parents were reminded of this as my uncle was gunned down in the street while bringing groceries for the family. The civil war in Somalia was bloody and my parents witnessed the murder of close family and friends.

“Because my family was forced to migrate, I was born a traveler as we sought out refugee status in Kenya."

Ahmed’s family, which includes his mother, father and 11 siblings, moved to Atlanta as refugees when he was 4. His parents never went to school. They had a hard time making ends meet. The quest for cheaper housing led them to move frequently, eventually from Atlanta to Columbus, Ohio. Family connections brought them to San Diego four years ago. With every move, Ahmed switched schools.

“You’re meeting new teachers all the time, you’re adjusting to a new system," he said. "It’s a new learning experience so you can’t just get started on the work, you have to learn how the new school operates and you have to make all new friends. So, it’s pretty stressful.”

Many students who move frequently struggle to achieve academically. When he started at Crawford IDEA, Ahmed nearly gave up that struggle.

“It wasn’t that I didn’t like school," he said, "but I didn’t think that college was in my future because I thought it was too expensive. So I wasn’t too concerned about getting high grades.”

He brought home an F on a progress report and his parents sat him down for a talk.

“It was basically just how they worked hard for me and they sacrificed a lot," he said. "So, it would be very disappointing to them to see me not become anything and not use my full potential. The week after I got that F I started researching schools and how to pay for them and I realized that it wasn’t too late for me, that I could get my grade up really quickly and that’s what I did.”

He went from not being concerned about his grades to seeking out challenges. When Ahmed wanted to attend a summer math and science program at UC San Diego, but didn't have enough advanced math credits, he did an independent study to become eligible for the program, according to his counselor Jess Peterson.

Crawford IDEA's principal, Emma Martinez, began working at the school last summer. She heard about Ahmed before she met him.

"I was in the counseling office and teachers came in and wanted to know the AP scores that had come in over the summer," she said. "And, Idris had done exceptionally well, so the teachers were singing his praises before school even started. So, I heard his name and it's an unusual name, so it stood out."

It isn't drive alone that sets Ahmed apart from his classmates.

“I know that he goes above and beyond to help out his peers," said Peterson. In senior exhibitions this year there were at least two kids that mentioned that Idris helped them with their essays, so he really not only looks out for the better of himself, but the students around him.”

For one of those students, Peter De Jesus, Ahmed has been a good friend.

“During the 10th grade he was actually helping me on school and studying for tests, for homework and for essay and stuff like that," De Jesus said. "He’s really smart and I really improved my grades because of him, because of his help.”

Many of Crawford IDEA's students are not native English speakers and nearly all are considered economically disadvantaged.

"I have this feeling that my classmates are also in a similar situation that I am," Ahmed said. "Many of them come from immigrant families. So, if I can give them the help that they need to succeed it makes me feel better."

About 15 to 20 percent of Crawford IDEA’s grads go directly to a four-year college. One of them going to a school like Stanford isn’t common, but De Jesus said it was no surprise with Ahmed.

“I was expecting him to go to some prestige school, like Stanford and Harvard and stuff like that. I know that he can do it and be successful in life and successful in college.”

Martinez thinks the whole school shares that sense of pride.

“In your career, you know, I’ve been an educator for 33 years, and in your career you only come into contact with students like Idris once in your lifetime and I’m touched,” she said.

Ahmed will spend the summer interning at Scripps Research Institute. He plans to study chemistry when he starts at Stanford in September.

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