By CHARLES ANZALONE
Published February 22, 2023
Think of the continuing and already eventful life of UB junior Samiha Islam this way: She is going to change the world. She has already changed little pieces of it, but she’s just getting started. The only question is how and where and how influential those changes are going to be.
Ms. Islam, a double-major in health and human services and statistics — as well as a winner of a 2022 Key into Public Service Scholars award from Phi Beta Kappa — describes herself as “an artist at heart and an activist by nature.” Her gift is an ability to galvanize boots-on-the-ground activism, see the bigger systemic picture and at the same time express her inner poet.
Calling on statistics to navigate through life’s uncertainties, channeling her anger at the “shocking hypervisibility” that followed her public display of faith and validating her inner feelings in clear and elegant prose and drawings, Ms. Islam already has carved out a UB undergraduate presence that just shouts promise and possibilities.
“Oddly, I only began to experience Islamophobia when I started wearing the hijab,” she says. “My last name and the founding principles of my life had been boiled down to a dangerously narrow label: a villain of society.
“I soon learned that two hands are not enough to fix the shortcomings of entire systems because our systems are not simply broken; they’re built that way. I grew overwhelmed trying to fully grasp the scope of what I was fighting against.”
Following the 2017 U.S. immigration ban on six Muslim-majority countries, Ms. Islam organized the “Strangers to Neighbors” festival in Rochester while a high school student. The cultural fair, which was attended by more than 400 people and broadcast by multiple media outlets, celebrated the values, stories and perseverance of local refugees. “Strangers” featured “local taxi drivers, chefs and students sharing their cuisine and craft in fiercely honest dialogue,” she says. The event rallied Rochesterians to support asylum seekers, together “combatting the xenophobia and Islamophobia plaguing our national discourse.”
She is currently planning “From Strangers to Neighbors II,” to be hosted in collaboration with migrants across Western New York, after her graduation.
Ms. Islam has been a diversity advocate in UB’s Intercultural and Diversity Center, steering UB’s weekly “Tough Topics” dialogues on social justice from civil rights to world news. “Minorities of all backgrounds experience real differences within affinity groups, and in society at large,” she says. Her programming unpacks both “because we thrive best in community.”
“Tough Topics” are held at 3:30 p.m. every Tuesday in 240 Student Union.
Ms. Islam picked up two major academic prizes in the past nine months. Phi Beta Kappa chose her from among 900 applicants as one of 20 winners of a $5,000 undergraduate scholarship and mentorship in the nation’s most prestigious academic honor society. More recently, she received an internationally competitive fellowship at Carnegie-Mellon University to utilize data analytics for social impact work.
“Samiha is the type of student who doesn’t just talk the talk; she walks the walk,” says Shelley Kimelberg, director of the Social Sciences Interdisciplinary Degree Program, College of Arts and Sciences.
“She really is the perfect blend of book-smart intellectual and on-the-ground activist. She is confident and persuasive but also genuinely interested in hearing other people’s perspectives. She has what seems to me to be a boundless amount of energy. Every time I speak with her it appears that she has picked up a new project, is developing a new skill, or interested in a new topic,” Kimelberg says. “I don’t know how she finds time to sleep. I hope that she does!”
Ms. Islam’s multicolored and impressionistic journals act as an artist’s companion to her life arcs.
“When exhausted, these are my spaces to privately process,” she says.
“Pouring my thoughts onto a yellow legal pad, I ran out of space, transferring to sketchbooks with room for doodles and shapes. Over six years, those pages took on an entirely new purpose as art journals.”
Poetry aside, she chose the limitless realm of data analysis in the information age to target oppression and xenophobia.
“Statistics can connect seemingly random observations to systemic patterns” she says. “I believe that oppressive conditions like poverty, hunger, homelessness and even diseases like COVID-19 have been distributed systemically, not randomly.”
Ask to read what she wrote in a fellowship application about “finding community:”
“This is where I find hope — not with people of Abrahamic faiths exclusively, nor my friends and family in Brighton, but with humanity. Humanity is my community. … It is the selfless love of everyday people, standing in solidarity against hate, which add value and meaning to my world.”
Ms. Islam says she understands people through a humanitarian lens. But she is far from just a dreamer.
“The realist knows convincing stakeholders of the impact and importance of your work requires objective evidence,” she explains. So her academic work — “applying data analytics to social justice movements and policymaking” — dovetails with her big picture of moving forward.
Her five-year goals are concrete and abstract: continue to coordinate resources to sustain families who cannot wait until laws are passed, and — a bigger agenda — “expand my activism by consolidating a network of local organizations who serve the greater Rochester community and possibly running for office.”
Along for the ride is Jimmy, a small, sweet-looking stuffed animal dog/pencil case she carries everywhere. “My educational companion,” she says. Jimmy is filled with pencils, although she finds little use for them these days. “I keep them there for his sake,” she says.
She thinks carefully about how she wants her story to end. Eventually, she chooses a quote by French existentialist Albert Camus: “The only way to deal with an unfree world is to become so absolutely free that your very existence is an act of rebellion.”
Awesome story! Way to go, Samiha!