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Living to serve and leading with purpose
Naima Ilmi recalled her seventh grade self writing answers to the test questions she diligently prepared for. After thinking more deeply and staring into the question with thoughtful discernment, uncertainty began to manifest in her brain and she opted to employ the soft, pink eraser and remove her initial answer. Brushing away the graphite-tarnished crumbles, she hoped her reconsideration wouldn’t be in vain.
Second-guessing was her nemesis. Like many of her adolescent classmates, confidence sometimes escaped, but fortunately, a social studies teacher found a teachable moment and decided to act on what he saw was an obstacle in her life.
“I will never forget my seventh grade social studies teacher,” Naima began. “He always noticed I erased the correct answers on my tests and put down wrong answers afterward. One day, he took the eraser off my pencil and told me to believe in myself. He told me not to second guess and trust in what I knew.”
There are very few traces of the child who once questioned her own academic confidence.
Today, Naima is a third-year student on track to a triple major in Psychology, Social Work, and Political Science. She is the president of the Muslim Student Association, vice-president of the Advancement of Afrikan American Culture student organization, and a member of Diversity Cabinet, which works to bring administrators and students together to make sure voices are heard and fundamental, basic student needs are met.
– Naima Ilmi
The latter role is possibly where Naima’s heart is most fulfilled.
After enrolling at Capital, her family unexpectedly moved to Minnesota, leaving Naima, a first-generation, immigrant college student, alone to wade through the cumbersome work of keeping successfully enrolled in college.
“There’s a lot to people than what we tend to see,” she said. “I know that if my basic needs were not met, I wouldn’t be in the position I’m in. We have a lot of first-generation students and I can speak for them and say it’s really hard coming into a school when there’s no one in your direct family that’s gone to a university.
You’re doing everything for yourself, from financial aid to scheduling classes, and you’re walking around with students whose parents are holding their hand through everything – students who have never looked at their own financial aid papers.”
The decision to stay was not difficult. After a heart-to-heart with her mother, Naima knew she was where she needed to be.
“The only reason I stayed in Ohio was because of Capital,” she remembered. “My mom was very adamant about me staying here. I loved it right from the start and knew this was the school for me. She let me know I was going to have to make sacrifices, but I ended up staying.”
Naima acknowledges many people for helping her through her time here, but she makes it clear that her mother is the bedrock to her foundation as a person.
“My mother is very important to me and is very much the reason I am a servant leader. She pushed me at a very young age to give to those less fortunate and has taught me to love everyone. She’s the strongest person I know and she has taught me how to be the strong resilient woman I am today.”
As a result of her mother’s influence, it’s no surprise Naima found meaningful work at the Huckleberry House in Columbus, an organization committed to building a safe space for children who are considered at-risk due to crisis, homelessness, or running away. During Capital’s Crusader Day of Service, she decided to invite her entire resident hall to participate, and the change in their lives was immediate.
“They all loved it. I loved it. Right after that day I sent an email and said I really want to work here. And I was called in for an interview and got a job as crisis center interventionalist.”
Naima expounded on what the meaning of being a servant leader is and would like to see everyone at Capital experience the reward of service as part of their time here.
“You’ll never really be part of a community until you give back to a community,” she began. “It’s very hard to say, ‘yes, I’m part of Capital’ if you’re not actually out there representing Capital. Being able to see the different people that make up Columbus makes you very connected to your community and gives you a sense of pride.”
Service-learning is considered to be a high-impact practice. According to the 2016 National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE) report, 67 percent of Capital University seniors have said that at least some of their courses have included a community-based service project. Reaching out to underserved populations and embracing diversity is an area where Capital is always looking to improve, and Naima is encouraged by the progress she’s seen in her brief time here.
“From my freshman year until where we are right now, we’ve grown so much. Early on, diversity was just something that we spoke of, but now it’s something I can actually see; I can see it’s important to our campus. Nothing is going to happen overnight, but as long as we’re having conversations we’re on the right path of getting to where we need to be.”
As for the future, Naima has a very clear idea what success will ultimately look like to her.
“I want to come back to Capital and give back – a lot, especially to first-generation immigrant students,” she starts. Once I’ve become successful and established, I’d like to start a scholarship. After all, I wouldn’t even be here if it weren’t for the help of individuals on this campus who have made sure I got the books I needed and that things were paid for when I needed help.
Asking for help is something first-generation students struggle with. Particularly first-generation immigrant students. We need to be able to say ‘I need help.’ It’s a basic need. You can’t really be part of anything until you yourself are whole.”
As someone who didn’t speak English until the second grade, Naima credits a vast support system of people who cared and were willing to help. She maintains that her mom has always taught her that there’s a lot more than just herself and her situation.
“I wouldn’t be here without the people around me. We need each other to succeed. If it weren’t for my ESL teacher teaching me English, or a family friend teaching me to read, I wouldn’t be where I’m at today.”
Looking away, searching for the right words to best describe the humble gratitude she feels, her thoughts landed miles away in Minnesota where her mom currently resides. Naima shares a warm, broad smile with a final thought.
“No matter how many times I’ve talked to other people about my mom, I don’t think I’ve ever really sat down and told her how much she means to me.”
A mother like hers certainly knows.