Accomplished Young Leader Gains Inspiration from Humphrey School Junior Summer Institute
At 23 years old, Zaynab Abdi of Minneapolis has already fulfilled a lifetime’s worth of accomplishments. But Abdi, a refugee from Yemen, is just getting started.
Since she arrived in Minnesota in 2014 Abdi has become an honor student, a student government leader, and an advocate for refugees. She’s spent the past several weeks at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs to take another step toward her goals of attending graduate school and pursuing a career in global policy.
Abdi is one of 21 rising college seniors from around the country who participated in this year's Junior Summer Institute (JSI) at the Humphrey School, an intensive seven-week summer training program designed to prepare undergraduate students, mostly from underrepresented communities, to thrive in master’s degree programs and launch careers in public service.
Abdi and her family lived in Yemen until 2012, when they left the country in the midst of the anti-government revolution. They settled in Egypt, which was also politically unstable. So in 2014, Abdi traveled to the United States and rejoined her mother, who had settled in Minneapolis several years earlier.
“I came to the US by myself after getting a visa,” Abdi says. “I had just turned 18. My younger sister, who was 16, did not get a visa and so she had to stay behind.”
Shortly after arriving in Minneapolis, Abdi enrolled at Wellstone International High School—which caters to immigrants, refugees, and undocumented students—to finish her high school studies. She graduated in 2016 with a 4.0 grade point average. She went on to St. Catherine University in St. Paul, where she is an honors student and will be a senior this fall.
All along the way Abdi has made her mark. She started the first women’s soccer team at her high school. At St. Catherine’s, she started a civic engagement collective to promote the importance of voting, women in politics, and social involvement; she was elected student senate president for the upcoming school year, and is the first refugee to serve in that capacity.
Outside of school, Abdi is involved with Green Card Voices, a project that records the stories of high school students who are refugees. She also works with the Malala Fund to promote girls’ education around the world. Her refugee story was included in a recent Green Card Voices book, and in Malala Yousafzai’s new book, We Are Displaced. She also wrote about it in a commentary for the Star Tribune.
All this while working several jobs to pay for her tuition.
“I get my energy from being busy,” Abdi says, adding that her experience as a refugee motivates her to share her story in hopes of helping and motivating others. “I believe in the power of these stories to make changes.”
The JSI program is part of the Public Policy and International Affairs (PPIA) Fellowship Program, which is committed to promoting the inclusion of underrepresented groups in master’s degree programs and careers in public service. This is the third year the Humphrey School has hosted the JSI.
We talked with Zaynab Abdi about her JSI experience, and her interest in public service. Her responses below have been edited for length and clarity.
Why are you interested in public policy?
When people talk about refugees, they have a bias about what we need. Refugees are presented as the needy person, not as the person who is overcoming obstacles and striving to become stronger. I don’t want someone to say that I’m ‘a poor person; look what happened to you.’ Instead, I want them to say, ‘you’re inspiring, you’re great, you can be a role model.’
I’m interested in becoming a US citizen, and will be applying this fall. But I’m concerned about whether the travel ban will cause a problem for me since my parents are Somali and Yemeni; it’s a double ban for me [because both those countries are on the travel ban list.]
This is where I get interested in policy and policymaking. Why was this travel ban acceptable, and why were those countries chosen? People from those countries are running away from conflict and trying to find a safe place to live, and the US is closing its doors. This is when data is used to restrict people rather than help them. I think policymaking needs to rely on more than just data. We also need to share the stories of human beings that are affected.
What led you to apply for the Junior Summer Institute program?
I attended a PPIA weekend seminar last year at the Humphrey School, and I was so excited about it. I was really interested in the research on race that was presented by Dr. Samuel Myers. That was something that I was passionate about, living where I do [in the Cedar-Riverside neighborhood of Minneapolis]. We learned about the PPIA alumni and what they are doing, the doors that can be opened. I learned that PPIA has amazing and powerful resources for us.
Tell us about your Humphrey School JSI experience.
I really love my cohort, and I’ve enjoyed meeting new people from different places around the country. I love my economics/stats class. I love the faculty and professors that teach us and want us to learn, even though we might not have a lot of experience in some of the subject areas. I’ve had a great experience with all of them.
My team did a policy project focusing on racial disparities in marijuana arrests in Minnesota. Black people are six times more likely than white people to be arrested for marijuana possession in the state. The more arrests they have, the more likely their prospects for jobs, housing, and so on, will be affected. We studied several options for addressing this issue, including more bias training for police officers, expungement of arrest records, and legalizing marijuana in the state.
I’m the first student from St. Catherine University to participate in the PPIA program. I’m excited to help other students at St. Kate’s to apply for the program, especially immigrant students.
[As the incoming student senate president at St. Kate’s] I have a long agenda, and I feel like the PPIA program helped me a lot in terms of being able to implement these policies.
What are your plans for graduate school?
I want to study public policy and law so I can be a lawyer and work on policies that affect our society. I plan to apply to the Humphrey School for sure, as well as some other schools. The cost of grad school will be a factor for me. I might take a gap year before going back to school, and I’d like to work at the UN for that year.
What are your long-term goals?
I’m interested in international affairs, mostly in the Middle East. Yemen is a good example. What can the US do to help the government there? The United States is going to be my home, but I’m interested in having the US build relationships with other countries.
The University of Minnesota is one of five institutions across the country to host a JSI, which is fully funded and often leads to generous financial aid packages at participating schools. The others are Carnegie Mellon University, Princeton University, the University of Michigan, and the University of California, Berkeley.