Inspiring Youth

From Hargeysa to Harvard: A Young Somali Student’s Journey to an Ivy League

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Abdisamad Adan, a Somali who has siblings who never attended school, defied the odds to end up at Harvard. Kayana Szymczak for The New York Times

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — OF the millions of young men and women settling into college dorms this month, one of the most unlikely is Abdisamad Adan, a 21-year-old beginning his freshman year at Harvard. Some of his 18 siblings are illiterate and never went even to first grade, and he was raised without electricity or indoor plumbing by an illiterate grandmother in a country that doesn’t officially exist.

Yet he excelled as he studied by candlelight, and he’s probably the only person in Harvard Yard who knows how to milk a camel.

Abdisamad is the first undergraduate the Harvard admissions office remembers from Somalia or its parts, at least in the last 30 years of institutional memory. He is from Somaliland, a breakaway republic that isn’t recognized by any other country (and so doesn’t have a United States embassy to grant him a visa, but that’s another story).

Yet Abdisamad brims with talent and intelligence. He’s a reminder of the fundamental aphorism of our age: Talent is universal, but opportunity is not.

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Current students and alumni and a former teacher at the Abaarso School of Science and Technology on graduation day. The Abaarso School

If not for a fluke, Abdisamad acknowledges, he might have joined friends to become part of the tide of migrants making a precarious journey by sea to Europe. How he came instead to Harvard is a tribute to his hard work and intellect, but also to luck, and to an American hedge fund tycoon who, bored by finance, moved to Somaliland and set up a school for brilliant kids who otherwise wouldn’t have a chance.

This campus is where Abdisamad blossomed.

He says his parents divorced before he was born, so his grandmother raised him. He spent an average of two hours a day fetching water and had no one pushing him at home, but still performed superbly at a local primary school. In national eighth grade exams, he scored second in the entire country.

The problem was that while primary school tuition had been $1 a month, a good high school would be at least $40 a month. His grandmother couldn’t afford that, and in any case she didn’t really see why he needed high school. No one in his family had ever graduated from high school.

But then Abdisamad was accepted at Abaarso, which is flexible about tuition: If a promising student can’t pay, Starr looks the other way. So Abdisamad began ninth grade at Abaarso, struggling at first because classes were in English, which he didn’t speak. And Abdisamad’s grandmother was displeased that he was spending his time in the classroom rather than helping the family.

“She was definitely not happy in the beginning,” Abdisamad remembered. “She asked me, ‘Are you starting to hate us? Are you falling in love with Americans?’ ”

He quickly learned English, however, and after three years won a scholarship to study at the Masters School, a college prep school, in Dobbs Ferry, N.Y. The year in Dobbs Ferry was an adventure — it took a while for Abdisamad to figure out vending machines — but he thrived and decided to apply to Harvard.

His admission to Harvard was treated as a national cause for celebration. Somaliland’s president invited him for a meeting, and Abdisamad became a local hero. His grandmother hadn’t heard of Harvard but came to be proud of her grandson and appreciate that education had its uses.

All Things Somali republished this story from the New York Times. The full story can be read here: New York Times by Nicholas Kristof

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