The lack of stability in housing for Brown and Black communities and barriers to college access for Arabic and Muslim high schoolers have been a focus of Yasmine Elkharssa's studies for several years.
Now, as the newest Truman Scholar, the University of Michigan student will be able to ignite her passion for fighting against injustice through law and policy.
A junior at U-M's Ford School of Public Policy, Elkharssa has been selected as one of 62 Truman Scholars nationwide this year. Administered by The Harry S. Truman Scholarship Foundation, the award provides $30,000 for graduate study.
"Coming from Dearborn Heights, I see clearly how Arabs and Muslims have been forced out of the narrative, whether in politics, government or beyond," she said. "It's time we end this false narrative and prove that we belong in these spaces.
"As a future lawyer, I aspire to represent those who face discrimination in civil rights cases while also influencing policy to break the cycle of systemic discrimination faced by my community and many others."
Elkharssa will be U-M's 30th Truman Scholar. This year's awardees were selected from 705 candidates nominated by 275 colleges and universities. They were recommended by 17 independent selection panels based on the finalists' academic success and leadership accomplishments, as well as their likelihood of becoming public service leaders.
"I am eager to work on policy issues that affect Arab and other minority communities so that I can help develop a system that empowers their voices instead of penalizes them," Elkharssa said. "I am a firm believer that the United States justice system is fatally complicit in prosecuting poverty instead of advocating for the needs of vulnerable communities in developed policies."
Established by Congress in 1975 as the living memorial to President Harry S. Truman, the Truman Scholarship carries the legacy of the 33rd U.S. president by supporting and inspiring the next generation of public service leaders.
Henry Dyson, director of the U-M Office of National Scholarships and Fellowships, advised Elkharssa during the application process. He said she has charted an ambitious course for her future career: law school, a federal clerkship, and a legal career focusing on housing rights with either Housing and Urban Development or the Department of Justice.
"I am betting that Yasmine will achieve these goals for two reasons," Dyson said. "First, her amazing accomplishments in the three years she's been at U-M. If I plot that line out 10-20 years, it points to great leadership achievements in the future.
"Second, she has shown the ability to form close mentoring relationships that can help her along the way. The Truman Scholarship will be transformative for her by introducing her to a new social network and support system to aid her future leadership development."
Fighting for college accessibility
According to Elkharssa, the majority of students at her predominantly Arab, Muslim-populated high school, did not pursue a four-year higher education program, often not understanding the resources or programs available to them.
"I was distraught by how the education system failed my community," she said. "I was only one of two students admitted to the University of Michigan from my class."
During her first semester at U-M, Elkharssa co-founded Students 4 Students, a student-led organization that focuses on cultural sensitivity during the college application process. With her team, she developed a 12-week program targeted to fit the needs of a predominantly under-resourced Arab, Muslim school to combat learned helplessness.
"By the end of our first year, 29 of the 37 students applied and were admitted to college, a 78% rate," she said. "Only 44% of students had accomplished this feat. As a student from a similarly underserved community, our organization extends beyond college preparation and invests in the confidence of historically marginalized identities in processes that have excluded them.
"I will keep fighting as a Truman scholar. As a future lawyer and policymaker, I will be committed to fearlessly and urgently addressing the most pressing issues of systemic racism and class discrimination through legal justice work."
Story originally written by Fernanda Pires and published by Michigan News.