Ahmed Ahmed's journey from refugee to Rhodes scholar
By Krishna Ramanujan
When Ahmed Ahmed ’17 was in middle school, the cupboards at home were often bare. Still, on the way to school, he and his mother would stop at the gas station for a 50-cent snack, so Ahmed could feel he belonged with his more affluent peers during snack time. Caring gestures like this helped Ahmed maintain a positive spirit in the face of adversity.
Ahmed’s life story is a remarkable tale of a young man who combined hard work with inspiration and guidance from others to grow as a person, from a refugee to a Rhodes scholar.
“Whenever I have those long tough days, I reflect back on not just my family but also the people growing up who invested so much effort to help me when they didn’t have to,” Ahmed said.
The youngest of eight children, Ahmed was born to Somali parents in a Kenyan refugee camp. His family was granted asylum to the United States in 1995, before his first birthday, and they moved to the rough neighborhoods of Riverdale, Maryland. This summer, after graduating from Cornell on May 28, Ahmed will travel to the University of Oxford, England, as a Rhodes scholar. While there, he will pursue a master’s degree in higher education, where he will study access to post-secondary studies.
He plans a career in translational medicine – fast-tracking lab research into clinical practice – a career choice heavily influenced by his childhood. In 2007, his father died at age 50 after falling ill on a trip to Kenya and receiving inadequate treatment.
“That sparked my interest in medicine, the poor access to health care that my father had, and wanting to make sure that nobody else would have to experience anything like that,” he said.
Ahmed aspires to play a role in limiting health care disparities, he said. “All patients deserve equal access and equal treatment.”
Coming to America
Before Ahmed was born, his parents were wealthy, living in Mogadishu, Somalia. His father, Mukhtar, rose from driving a taxi to making a small fortune by becoming one of the only travel agents capable of booking flights out of the country. Ahmed’s mother, Batula, came from a successful family who valued education. Civil war broke out in 1991, and after armed robberies in their home, the family fled Somalia in 1994, taking only what they could carry.
A year later, after being granted asylum, they moved into a three-bedroom apartment in a crime-heavy immigrant neighborhood in Riverdale. The kids threw mattress pads on the living room floor to sleep, and the parents each worked two jobs, mostly in factories.
“I was raised by my older siblings a lot of the time,” Ahmed said. His parents kept the children inside to shelter them from the neighborhood. When Ahmed was 5, Mukhtar and Batula had saved enough to move to a better neighborhood in Greenbelt, Maryland. His parents divorced two years later, and his mother moved Ahmed and three of his siblings to Rochester, Minnesota.
“Those were some of the most difficult times, because it was far different to transition from a two-parent household to being raised by a single mom,” Ahmed said. “During our first seven years in Rochester we changed homes six times.” Then, Batula hurt her back while working as a hotel maid, which put her out of work to this day. His sister, Alwiya, who helped raise him and encouraged him to strive, was a senior in high school at the time. That year, she worked nights on a computer assembly line to support the family, came home at daybreak to take the younger kids to school, attended school herself, then returned home to sleep before her next work shift.
“My parents never allowed us to use anything as an excuse; you found a way to make things work with what you had,” Ahmed said. “Money comes and goes, you never placed any value on it. What my mother placed value on was your character.”
Ahmed was 12 years old when his father died. Until then, he hadn’t applied himself in school.
“It showed me, with all that my siblings and parents were doing to support me and putting their best effort forward, that I had to reciprocate that in school,” he said.
In high school, he balanced honors and advanced placement classes with track and basketball, and a nursing home job where he kept residents company. The job, his entry into the health care field, taught him that “by coming in with a positive attitude or a smile and sharing that with someone or playing a game, that in itself was healing, that was medicine,” he said.
He shed his brother Abdi’s legacy as a high school and college basketball star – Abdi played Division I basketball at North Dakota State University – and learned to “fake it until he made it” in English classes where he initially struggled. He slowly understood how a strong work ethic and a belief in oneself was a foundation for success, he said.
Cornell: helping hands
At Cornell, he struggled with the demands of college. In one day, he did poorly both on his first preliminary exam in an evolution course taught by Irby Lovette, professor of ornithology, and on his first paper for a writing seminar taught by English graduate student Michaela Brangan. That day – Oct. 11, 2013, a date he saved on his phone – marked a turning point.
“I understood all I could do for my family moving forward and all the efforts my mom put in, and I just felt like I had failed them,” he said. Alwiya’s boyfriend, a Stanford medical student at the time, encouraged him to approach his instructors. Lovette and Brangan reviewed his work with him. Those experiences helped him raise his work standards.
Ahmed’s peers chose him for the Class of 2017 Outstanding Student Award in 2015, and he received the 2017 SUNY Chancellor’s Award for Student Excellence. He also mentored underrepresented students in the Scholars Working Ambitiously to Graduate program; served as a student adviser for the Office of Undergraduate Biology; and volunteered for Habitat for Humanity and the Cornell Emergency Medical Service.
He views James Blankenship, a senior lecturer in the Department of Molecular Biology and Genetics, as “one of the biggest influences in my life,” he said. He took Blankenship’s biochemistry course sophomore year, then Blankenship offered him a teaching assistantship. As a TA, his peers chose him for the Floyd and Gerry Collins Excellence in Teaching Award. Later, he became the first Cornell undergraduate TA to help an instructor lead weekly TA training meetings and write midterm exam questions, and the first TA to give recorded online lectures.
His mentor became a caring guide for personal and professional issues as well. “For me, the void that I had in my life when I lost my dad at 12, Jim sort of filled throughout my time at Cornell and he is someone I am forever thankful for,” Ahmed said.
“I honestly believe that talent exists anywhere in this world,” he said. “It is a matter of investing in others and providing all people an opportunity to be successful.”