How does opportunity come about? Is it luck? Or having a certain upbringing? Knowing the right people? Being in the right place at the right time?
For Fartun Sherif, a CEC Middle College of Denver freshman, opportunity is about stepping out of one’s comfort zone, getting a solid education and not letting obstacles get in her way. And if ever there were a student who knew about life’s challenges it would be this young, ambitious, unassuming student, whose main goal in life is to “give back to family and society what they have done for me.” Period. She does not talk about money or fame or fortune. She simply wants to do what is right and contribute to the world around her.
It’s this attitude that is going to give Fartun one of the biggest opportunities of her life. Recently, she earned a scholarship to a highly-selective five-week Summer Institute at Cushing Academy in Ashburnham, Massachusetts—a prestigious learning experience, valued at more than $8,000—giving this deserving student a chance to improve her academics, meet students from all over the world and travel throughout the east coast.
For most students acceptance to this program is accomplishment enough, but for Fartun, it stands to be a huge stepping stone to improve her life and is one of the brightest spots in an otherwise challenging existence. ”I think it will be a step in the right direction for me to succeed in life. I want to try new things because I’m not always comfortable with that. I always thought that if I signed up for this, there would be kids way smarter than me and why would I think I’d get in? I haven’t always been confident with myself,” she said as she reflected on the Cushing summer school.
Fartun could easily be bitter about the hand life has granted her. She could make excuses, but this young woman was woven of a much stronger fabric. Born in Kenya, she was the tenth child, yet she has only two older siblings. “My mom already had seven other children, all who died at a young age of starvation and/or illness,” she explained clarifying why she is the third oldest of five in her family.
When she was born, her mother, father and two older sisters “moved to Kenya from Somalia due to wars and violence in Somalia,” she wrote in her Cushing application essay. “We lived in a Kenyan refugee camp and depended on handouts of food to survive. In 2003, the United Nations made it possible for all of us to move to America,” she said.
Living in the U.S., the circumstances were different but the obstacles remained. Her mother does not speak any English and eventually divorced Fartun’s father who became a severe alcoholic. Fortunately, perseverance runs in this family and Fartun, her mother, three sisters and nine-year-old brother, who has severe disabilities and is unable to walk or talk, continued to carry on with a can-do attitude. At the age of four, Fartun began to learn English and now at the age of fourteen, she is proficient. “I have done well academically in school,” she wrote. “But I often felt embarrassed, discouraged and ready to just quit.”
Because of her Muslim background other kids have called her a “terrorist” or made fun of her clothing. “It has been very humiliating for me to be so different,” she said. But she feels fortunate to attend a school like the CEC Middle College of Denver where she is getting a high quality education and feels “very safe and important,” she said.
While many people would fall at the feet of adversity, Fartun has used it to her advantage. “A lot of people use it [adversity] as an excuse, but I use it to inspire me. Especially my little brother inspires me a lot. And I want to give back to my mom because she sacrificed a lot for my family, leaving her own country and coming to a new country with no one she knows and not speaking a word of English.”
To hear Fartun tell her story it is clear that she knows where opportunity resides. It lives inside oneself. It is in the will that one finds a way. And if in her short fourteen years she has learned this much, her possibilities will always be endless.