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Learning to Lead

As a Policy Associate for Saint Paul Mayor Melvin Carter’s office, Ikram Koliso has an impressive resume of professional accomplishments, but she remembers a time when she found it difficult to articulate her skills on paper.

During her senior year of high school, Ikram worked relentlessly to translate her experience into a one-page document that would impress college admissions committees. Earning an education was a goal she had longed to achieve since her childhood in Ethiopia and Kenya, but she recalls her dream often felt out of reach, even after moving to the United States. No one in Ikram’s family had attended college or had knowledge of the prerequisites, application requirements or financial aid systems to help her with the process. As a first-generation college applicant, she was thankful she wasn’t fully alone on her college journey — her College Possible coach, Rachel, was there to support and challenge her along the way. Ikram submitted draft after draft of her application materials to her coach, but Rachel would send them back each time, insisting she could do more.

“At the time, I did not get the point, and I did not want to keep editing and editing,” Ikram said. “However, I was so thankful that she pushed me. She was able to see more potential in me than I saw in myself.”

With the encouragement of her College Possible coach, Ikram began to take ownership of her talents and build the confidence in her abilities that had been missing for much of her high school career.

“I did well academically, but did not have much involvement in extracurricular activities within the high school. At the time, I just wasn’t aware of what was available, and I did not think I would be capable of taking on a leadership role,” Ikram said. “That’s something that I wanted to change in college.”

Ikram took her goal seriously. In her time as a student at St. Catherine University, she helped launch the campus Emerging Scholars program and served in a variety of on-campus leadership roles, such as a peer advisor in the Academic Advising Office, a peer mentor in the Multicultural and International Programs and Services Office, a teaching assistant for the Public Health Department, secretary of the First Generation Scholars League and president of the Muslim Student Association.

Ikram’s campus involvement earned her the Thomas Moore Leadership Award as just a sophomore, and by senior year she was granted the Mary E. McCahill Award — an accolade long recognized as St. Kate’s most prestigious achievement.

Throughout her time at St. Kate’s, Ikram did not strive for excellence in hopes of recognition or a stronger resume, but out of a commitment to her family, peers and network who supported her along the way.

Ikram’s hard work was particularly driven by her parents’ sacrifice. “I knew that the reason my family emigrated to the United States was for me to have an opportunity for education,” she said. Ikram had been unable to attend school in Ethiopia or Kenya, so it was not until she arrived in Saint Paul in fourth grade that she was able to begin her studies. With this opportunity came the responsibility to reach even further. “To attend college was to live out the dreams of my parents and their predecessors,” she said.

Ikram said she was thankful for the guidance and preparation she received along the way. “College Possible was my right hand in not only encouraging me, but also providing me the tangible assistance needed for success.”

During her commencement speech as valedictorian of St. Kate’s 2017 graduating class, Ikram described the importance of paying forward this support.

“Whether you will be a nurse, teacher, social worker, respiratory therapist, artist, historian, biologist or mother, it is your responsibility to help create a society where all people have both tangible and intangible resources,” she said.

Ikram puts these beliefs into practice every day as part of Mayor Carter’s policy team, where she is helping lead the implementation of the city’s college savings account initiative. This plan aims to increase educational opportunity for St. Paul youth by providing a college savings account for every child born in the city. As she shared in her commencement speech, Ikram hopes her policy work will help address the root causes of systemic inequalities, such as those that exist in higher education.

“We know that it is not an accident that systems and institutions were created to be exclusive — they are people-made, and we are responsible for dismantling these systems so that all our communities can succeed and prosper,” she said.

Like her College Possible coach so many years before, Ikram will keep pushing her peers and community members for more. “Let us remember,” she said, “we all do better when people of color and indigenous people do better.”

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