Cuyamaca College student Nancy Yousif remembers the sinking feeling back in 2008 of going to her son’s school to register him for kindergarten.
She faced page after page of forms to fill out in a language not her own.
Just recently arrived in El Cajon with her family, Yousif’s mind raced as she thought about all they had endured, fleeing to Syria from war-torn Iraq. It seemed like eternity, the two-year wait to resettle in El Cajon, home to thousands like herself: Christian Chaldeans escaping tyranny.
Resolute, Yousif took the pages home and with dictionary in hand, translated every word and filled out the forms in a painstaking process of several hours.
Fast forward to 2014 and Yousif is about to graduate as class valedictorian from Cuyamaca College with a perfect 4.0 grade-point average. The social work major, who will transfer in the fall to San Diego State University, is nervous, but determined to give the valedictory speech at the June 4 commencement ceremony.
The 33-year-old mother of three boys, Laith, 9; Ghaith, 8, and Matthew, 4, said she was clueless what it meant to be valedictorian, and stared blankly at the college dean who told her that with the distinction came the expectation of delivering the ceremony’s student address.
“I told her, no, I couldn’t do it,” Yousif said. “She looked at me and said, ‘yes, you can.’”
In her speech, Yousif starts with the following words:
“If you want to do it, you can. You have to go for it – don’t ever give up.”
Yousif thinks back often of the day in 2008 that she spent poring over the dictionary, and how it motivated her to start English classes at adult school, and two years later, to enroll at Cuyamaca College. Her early struggles adjusting to life in America as a war refugee have instilled in her a goal to become a social worker. And teachers like English-as-a-Second-Language instructor Alicia Muñoz have made her realize how much a difference a caring mentor can make.
“She helped me from the very beginning to get into the ESL classes that, especially back then, had such long wait lists,” Yousif said. “It took over a year to get into those classes. And I am so grateful for the support and encouragement she continued to give me.”
A computer science student at Baghdad University, Yousif always excelled in school. With the encouragement and support of her husband, Adnan Oraha, a music industry studies major at Cuyamaca, Yousif vowed to continue her academic success in her newfound country.
“Not so easy with three boys,” Yousif said. “After 10 o’clock at night – that was my time to study, usually until about 2, sometimes later.”
Yousif credits much of her success to the excellent instruction she has received at Cuyamaca.
“All of the professors here have been so amazing and encouraging,” she said. “They know what the many Chaldean students like me have gone through and the challenges we face. They understand.”
A student worker at the college’s Disabled Students Programs and Services office, Yousif also has to fit the 15 hours a week at her job into her busy life, but besides the obvious financial benefit, she said her work experience has also been an invaluable learning opportunity.
“I’m thankful for the opportunity that I was given to work at Disabled Students to gain the skills and experience I will need in the future.”