Selene was new to her middle school in 8th grade. She had started acting out at school in early winter, getting sent out of classes by her teachers and often heard in the middle of fights in the hallway. She was frequently tardy, not involved in any activities, and teacher’s often complained about her misbehavior. School staff were confused by Selene’s behavior because she had started at the school as a very quiet student that often went unnoticed; no one knew why she had suddenly started acting out.
Natalie, the site coordinator at the school, began working with Selene. The relationship deepened soon after when Selene asked Natalie if she could help people if their family was homeless. After talking to Selene for a while, Natalie learned that Selene and her mom were sleeping on people’s couches and were looking for permanent housing, although Selene’s mom was struggling to find work with limited English Language ability and minimal work experience. It was clear that Selene had a lot of desire to help her mom out and to contribute to their household. Natalie set up a meeting with Selene and her mother and helped them identify some needed housing and basic needs resources while they waited for their low income housing to become available. After Natalie started working with Selene and her mother, Selene immediately started trusting Natalie more. Selene would often come to her office to talk about good news or challenges she was facing.
One day Natalie intercepted Selene as she was storming down the hallway, crying with anger. Although she was quite emotional and ready to act on her anger, Natalie was just able enough to get her to sit down and start talking through her emotions more. After a little while, Selene started to reveal the source of a lot of her anger and frustration stemmed from feeling caught between her identity as a Muslim young woman with a strong religious upbringing, and the culture of many of her peers that did not understand her religious values and traditions. It was clear to Natalie, who was not Muslim or African, that she could not fully understand Selene’s challenge. As Natalie brainstormed with Selene about how she could work through some of these dilemmas, she came up with the idea of starting a girls group specifically for Muslim and East African Girls at the school, where they could come together and discuss issues as a group. Selene immediately became very excited, she initiated setting up planning meetings with Natalie, where she learned how to take an idea and turn it into a reality. She was relentless with turning her new dream into a reality; she met with teacher’s to find a space, helped recruit girls to join the group, and helped select the group facilitator, a Senior at the University of Washington who was also Muslim and East African. Over the three months from the group’s first meeting to the end of the school year, Selene invested a lot of energy into the group’s ongoing planning and success, and the payoffs in her personal growth were stunning.
While Selene definitely still struggled with her behavior at times, she transformed from a troubled young lady who was disengaged in school to a confident and well liked student who was now engaged in her school community and excited about the opportunities that lay ahead of her in high school and college. She was one of three 8th graders selected from a class of 250 to speak at their 8th grade promotion. During her time to speak she inspired her classmates by telling them to rise up, come together and look to the future with hope and passion. I have no doubt that she will continue to inspire those around her and do great things.