I sat down with sociology major, humanitarian, aspiring nurse, and my friend, Nejat Kassahun, to talk about Boulder’s image of inclusiveness, volunteer opportunities, and fielding awkward questions like, “Where are you from?”
Nejat’s parents came to the United States from Ethiopia in the early ‘90s, during the Ethiopian Civil War. With the help of family and friends, they lived in many different places around the US before eventually settling in Aurora, Colorado where Nejat grew up and went to school.
“There’s a large Ethiopian community in Aurora and Denver,” she said. “They have community meetings for celebrations and stuff.” When I asked how Boulder compares to Aurora she told me, “The community is a lot smaller. There’s a smaller general African community, but I’ve found a lot of other Ethiopian people here.”
“Do people ask you where you’re from a lot?” I asked.
“Yes! People ask me that all the time. Sometimes I don’t know what they mean by that. I’m from Aurora! Do you mean my ethnicity?”
I asked Nejat if she felt she had ever been treated differently because of her Ethiopian heritage or her Muslim faith. “Yeah,” she said. “My freshman year, my roommate and I were the only people of color on our floor! I felt like it was hard to make people around us comfortable. I did think, is it because of my skin color or my headscarf? I feel like people are automatically afraid of me, which is hard because I love people! I love talking to people.”
When I brought up the rhetoric about Islam being tossed around this election season she added, “This election is scary. It sucks with everything going on in the media. There is still a negative stigma to Islam. Fear does overcome people and they want to pick at others.” But according to Nejat, there is still a silver lining because people are finally learning and having a dialogue. “There’s less ignorance because now people are talking about it.”
When I pressed Nejat about whether the inclusive image of Boulder was genuine or just a façade, she said, “At first I thought it was just an image. But now I can see they’re definitely trying to push for more diversity and inclusion.” Nejat says she’s glad she found the African Student Alliance on campus as well as the Cultural Unity and Engagement Center. “I wouldn’t be as comfortable. And they do things like the International Coffee Hour that encourage inclusion.”
Finally, I asked Nejat to tell me about Alternative Spring Breaks and other service opportunities she’s taken. Last summer, Nejat went to Nicaragua to work on water conservation efforts. It was her first time out of the country. “It was just so beautiful over there,” she said. “And they use every single resource.” She was able to make this trip on a scholarship from the Volunteer Resource Center.
In spring of 2015, Nejat was awarded the Casey Feldman Scholarship which paid for her Spring Break trip to Cincinnati, where she worked with the homeless and learned how gentrification is displacing people in the area. “I just love doing that stuff. I wrote my scholarship essay on my family struggle and how I too want to make a difference in the world, big or small.”