Passing it On: How Fulbright Encouraged Me to Become a Mentor in Iraq

Theoretically, there is an endless number of essays that exist merely to sing praises to the value of education as a quintessential aspect of one’s personal and professional life, therefore there is no pressure to prove that argument, as it is already a well-established one. However, something is to be said about engaging in a transformative initiative as a mentor to help students receive a greatly valued education. I’d like to share my story as a “mentor” of students who understand the immense opportunity of receiving education outside their struggling, war-zone countries, specifically Syria and Iraq.

A friend of mine recommended applying for a program called: The Syrian Youth Empowerment Initiative. The initiative was starting a pilot program in Iraq and looking for Iraqi mentors to perform several duties, such as checking applications, interviewing, and then engaging in a mentorship connection to work with students on college applications with the end goal of their receiving admission and a scholarship. I instantly gravitated towards the idea as a grateful recipient of the Fulbright Program. The importance of encouraging young students to follow a path towards their life goals through formal university education is one area that I’m tremendously passionate about.

Intrigued and excited for the opportunity to pay it forward, I applied, and after a couple of interviews, I was a part of the program! Of course, because of the lack of a degree in education or background, training and seminars were crucial to help me become an efficient mentor. Everything was virtual, unfortunately, due to COVID-19. But, when life gives you lemons, you make zoom meetings! I was ecstatic to be paired up with two brilliant students: one from southern Iraq and the other was from northern Iraq.

There were challenges of communication, time zone differences, following the program, catching up, and most importantly, keeping the motivation and encouragement going even when I had other conflicts in my life. This pushed me to become a better version of myself so I could be a mentor for two intelligent, dedicated, and creative young women. Their struggles were relatable. Their hardships were mutual, and their firm grasp on the value of education was reciprocal.

Excitement, along with a turbulent sea of emotions, developed along this educational journey. While I was always rooting for these two, in the end, they had to do the heavy lifting themselves as they strode towards the finish line. I selfishly hoped that they would get through all the obstacles and receive a scholarship so I could celebrate a success story. Eventually, the result was that one student received a conditional offer.

Students I met from the program.

This learning journey challenged me to become a coach to keep the spirit high and have faith in the new generation — especially encountering this caliber of tenacious, persevering, and talented students holding the torch of hope for a prosperous, democratic, and enlightened Iraq. This year, I returned as a veteran mentor, paired with an eloquent and intelligent student from Baghdad. I’m again absolutely thrilled to embark on a new enriching educational journey to motivate my mentee.

Shiri is a 2016 Fulbright alum from Iraq. She received her Master of Architecture from the University of Oklahoma.

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