Ikram Koliso: We all do better, when we all do better

Ikram Koliso '17

Ikram Koliso '17, one of six Valedictorians in this year's graduating class, earned a standing ovation from the audience for her commencement speech at the College for Women ceremony Sunday. Photo by Rebecca Zenefski '10, By Rebecca Studios LLC

A double major in social work and public health, Ikram Koliso '17 was the 2017 student commencement speaker and was also the 2017 winner of the University's most prestigious honor, the Mary E. McCahill Award. Click here to read the full story.

Below, read the full text of her 2017 commencement speech that she delivered on May 21, 2017.

Thank you President Becky, Board of Trustees, family and friends. I am honored to be here speaking with you today.

In the summer of 2013, the sweltering Minnesotan sun beat down on me, as I wandered through the colorful campus of St. Catherine University, capturing the welcoming atmosphere of the new but friendly smiling faces that passed me by. I wondered, “Am I lost?” Because college was always a distant dream. Although in a new place, I was not going to allow college to scare me away. I smiled to myself, musing over the many times I felt this way as I journeyed with my family across multiple borders collecting rich but sometimes demanding experiences. I reminded myself that this journey was just the start of another adventure.

This is where the molding of my voice began. As a first-generation college student, I had no idea what to expect: “Was I going to make it?” Like many of you, I had little voices in my head that tried to control my thinking, and that tried to suppress my potential. The mission of St. Catherine University is to “educate women to lead and influence.” I had heard of this mission, but to hear it is one thing, and to live it is another. I promised myself that if I was going to attend this University, I would live out this mission. I learned three main lessons at St. Kate’s:

1) That being uncomfortable is essential for growth.
2) That we made it this far because of those who supported us — and therefore we must give back to our communities and those coming after us.
3) That we must be socially responsible and do our part to change the systems that exclude particular groups of people while advancing others.

Every single one of us has a voice, and we get to choose how to use it. We come from different walks of life, whether we came across the world as international students, or we came from small towns. We have been challenged in ways that we could have never imagined. St. Kate’s has taught us to be critical thinkers. The way we view the world may have changed because we have been pushed to think beyond ourselves and outside the boxes of the norms of our families and communities. To grow, we need to be uncomfortable. If you are sitting in a classroom or having a conversation with someone, and you feel uncomfortable to the point that you feel your face get hotter — that is a sign of growth. At that moment you will not think so, but later you will be thankful.

This happened to me last summer. A woman came up to me at a campus event that completely shook me to my core. She saw my Hijab and asked me where I was from. She continued by saying, “I am surprised that this Catholic University hasn’t converted you yet. How do I know you are not a threat to me and the world?” And the conversation went on and on. First I felt uncomfortable at being stereotyped this way, but then I began to process the complexity of the situation. I told her, I love my University because this community welcomes Muslim students for who they are. As a Muslim woman, I value education and the perspectives of others. My religion also teaches me about peace and contributing to the world in a positive way. Though this was a painful encounter, I feel that we both learned a great deal.

It is also important that we remember we did not make it this far alone. Yes, you are the one who went to classes and put in the work, but there is an entire movement behind you that provides the fuel you need to keep going. One of my biggest mentors and supporters is my father. After a long day of classes I would greet him with “Assalamualykum,” he would reply, “WaalaykumSalaam. How was school today, Ikram?” Often, I would have my eyes glued to my laptop, papers, and books scattered on the table while writing a research paper or studying for an exam. My father would ask, “What can I help you with?” As someone who had less than an eighth grade education, my father would not be able to provide me with much academic support, but what matter most is that he truly cared.

The St. Kate’s community also provided me with a support system that saw more potential in me than I saw in myself. One notable example was Multicultural and International Programs and Services, or MIPS Office. The MIPS staff welcomed me with open arms the summer before my first semester, and set me up with a peer mentor who would help me transition into college. In addition, they helped me to foster a sense of community and belonging that I then passed along to other students on campus.

Finally, St. Kate’s has developed us as socially responsible leaders. As a social work and public health major, I have learned the importance of having a social justice lens when working with clients and communities. During my junior year, I had the opportunity to work with residents in Hennepin County, where I connected clients to resources, such as food assistance, transportation, and cash assistance programs.

Although I am passionate about providing direct service to the community, I hope to work at the policy level to advocate for change in the root causes of social, economic, and environmental injustices. 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. Our society is full of social ills, where some people are subjected to fewer opportunities because of their skin color, gender, religion, where they came from, or because of the intersectionality of these identities.

We, as St. Kate’s graduates, have to work to change the status quo. We cannot continue to divide ourselves by our identities, but instead, we need to unite. At the end of the day, the social issues we are dealing with are about people, and not about politics. We can start by telling our stories and the stories of people we know who are marginalized by systems, because it is more real when we talk about the lives of individuals rather than a certain policy, law, or a single issue. We know that it is not an accident that systems and institutions were created to be exclusive — they are people-made, and, as graduates, we are responsible for dismantling these systems so that all our communities can succeed and prosper.

Let us remember, “We all do better, when we all do better.”

Congratulations, Katies class of 2017!

By Ikram Koliso '17