By CHARLES ANZALONE
Published April 14, 2023
An anti-racism activist and community organizer studying statistics and health and human services is UB’s second winner of the Harry S. Truman Scholarship, a nationally competitive award given to college juniors for leadership in public service.
Samiha Islam, a Rochester native whose activism centers around building empathy across backgrounds and belief systems to forge a more equitable, tolerant world, is one of 62 undergraduate scholars from 60 institutions in the U.S. chosen for the scholarships.
Students were nominated by their institution based on their records of leadership, public service and academic achievement.
After receiving notification from the Truman Foundation that Ms. Islam had been selected as a 2023 Truman Scholar, President Satish K. Tripathi surprised her with the news during her fine art class last week.
“Winning the Truman Scholarship is both a testament to the exceptional leadership potential that Samiha demonstrates and the transformative educational opportunities that UB provides our students,” Tripathi said. “This incredibly prestigious award reflects our commitment to cultivating the next generation of changemakers who, like Samiha, are dedicated to making a positive impact on society.
“All of us at UB are so proud of Samiha, and we look forward to seeing the meaningful difference she will surely make in the world.”
Ms. Islam brings a legacy of community activism that started when she founded, while a high school student, the “From Strangers to Neighbors Festival,” rallying refugees and allies to challenge xenophobic and Islamophobic discourse.
She has since organized conferences for thousands of students on interfaith dialogue, instructed seminars on intersectional and multiracial coalition-building across Western New York, and co-authored more than $150,000 in grants to support food equity and prison reentry services as part of her work at Barakah Muslim Charity.
Ms. Islam is a diversity advocate in UB’s Intercultural and Diversity Center, facilitating critical dialogues on privilege, politics and social justice for a more inclusive student body. She is currently researching non-carceral approaches to mitigating hate crimes as a Presidential Fellow at the Center for the Study of the Presidency and Congress.
Ms. Islam plans to pursue an MS in data analytics and public policy to holistically address resource inequality in racially segregated cities, ultimately improving social service coordination between nonprofit groups across the Northeast.
“Statistics can connect seemingly random observations to systemic patterns,” she said in a recent story in UBNow. “I believe that oppressive conditions like poverty, hunger, homelessness and even diseases like COVID-19 have been distributed systemically, not randomly.”
Ms. Islam is UB’s first Truman Scholar since 2016, when Madelaine Britt became the university’s first winner of the Truman award, which university officials have called the most prestigious undergraduate fellowship of all.
She will receive a $30,000 scholarship toward graduate school and the opportunity to participate in a professional development program next summer in Washington, D.C., to help prepare for a career in public service leadership.
A dual major in health and human services and biostatistics, Ms. Islam is also the recipient of a 2022 Key into Public Service Scholars award from Phi Beta Kappa.
An academic adviser described her as “the perfect blend of book-smart intellectual and on-the-ground activist.”
“She is confident and persuasive but also genuinely interested in hearing other people’s perspectives,” Shelley Kimelberg, director of the Social Sciences Interdisciplinary Degree Program, College of Arts and Sciences, said in the Feb. 22 UBNow article. “She has what seems to me to be a boundless amount of energy. Every time I speak with her it appears that she has picked up a new project, is developing a new skill or interested in a new topic.”
Ms. Islam described herself as “an artist at heart and an activist by nature.”
“I soon learned that two hands are not enough to fix the shortcomings of entire systems because our systems are not simply broken; they’re built that way,” she said. “I grew overwhelmed trying to fully grasp the scope of what I was fighting against.”