Nadeen Ibrahim (BS `17) was just 7 months old when her family moved from Jerusalem to the United States. They eventually settled in Wiggins–a rural town of about 900 people in the Eastern plains of Colorado. The oldest of six children, she grew up working alongside her brothers and sisters in a gas station owned by their parents. They were the only Muslim-American family in the community.
Post 9/11, Nadeen’s father sat her family down and outlined two choices: “You can go on and try to conceal your Arab and Muslim identities as much as possible, or you can educate people about who you are, despite how difficult and draining that may be.”
She chose the latter.
After graduating from CU Denver, completing her master’s degree at the University of Oxford and working in the West Bank, Nadeen has returned to the city she knows and loves. In Denver, she found her community, her fervor for civic activism. She’ll spend the next year educating residents of the metro region on the importance of participating in the 2020 Census.
“I’ll be joining a team of partnership specialists dedicated to educating our community about how the 2020 Census is easy, safe, and important, so that we can ensure a complete and accurate count,” Nadeen said. The decennial survey plays a vital role in determining federal funding for schools, hospitals, roads, public works, and other federal programs.
Finding her voice at CU Denver
It didn’t take long for Nadeen to find her community at CU Denver. During her first week as a first-year student, she was named president of the Muslim Student Association. She was instrumental in participation rates, helping grow the organization from just five to an eventual 450 members.
In between classes and on weekends, Nadeen could be found in the Denver community, often participating in a cultural event or a protest or rally for civil rights. Though she originally planned to become a doctor, her interest in public policy, activism and health led her to pursue an undergraduate degree in public health, with minors in chemistry and leadership studies.
“There is just something about working in the community that ignites a fire in me,” said Nadeen, sitting in local coffee shop near campus on a September afternoon. The self-starter lights up as she talks about her background in community service. “It gives me a sense of euphoria.”
Nadeen credits CU Denver and the University Honors and Leadership (UHL) program for shaping her education and paving the way for her accomplishments. In 2017, she was recognized by the Denver Metro Chamber Leadership Foundation and the Boettcher Foundation as the Colorado Leadership Alliance Student Leader of the Year for championing diversity and inclusion on campus.
Steven Medema, PhD, the former director of the UHL program who has since taken a position at Duke University, describes Nadeen as a “whirlwind” who gave him a renewed hope of what students can accomplish.
“The UHL program is loaded with outstanding students who are doing all kinds of interesting things inside and outside of the university. Nadeen, though, was so deeply involved in so many things that it made my head spin just to think about them,” Medema said over email. “She excelled academically in a very rigorous program of study. She remained closely and deeply tied to her family in Wiggins, supporting them in multiple ways. She dove head first into an incredible variety of activities on campus and in the larger community. Yet, she was always so much more than just a ‘participant.’ She was all in.”
CU Denver also provided the space for Nadeen to innovate and pursue her passions—in school and in the city of Denver. In 2015, Gov. John Hickenlooper appointed her to the state board of health that oversees the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment. She was the youngest Coloradan to serve on the board.
She was also the youngest person to work in the Denver Police Chief’s office. For a stint of time, she served as a community outreach specialist and helped train police officers and inform community members on addressing the rise in bias motivated crimes and domestic violent extremism.
“CU in the City shows that this is a mission and vision of the school—for students to realize that they are not only students but part of the fabric of the city,” Nadeen said.
‘My sense of academic thirst still exists’
After graduating from CU Denver, Nadeen spent the year being a caregiver for her ill family member. “It was a wake-up call for me to be more present with my family,” Nadeen said.
When her family member’s health improved, she continued her studies at Oxford University, where she earned a master’s degree in public policy. She was one of 119 students from 50 countries accepted into the program. While there, she used her free time for self-care, partaking in international travel and improving her Arab cooking skills. Before, her studies and work in the community encompassed her life.
“Going to Oxford taught me to balance my time,” Nadeen said. “You really can’t help people if you yourself aren’t healthy and capable to do so.”
She then spent nearly three months in the West Bank, a military-occupied region in the Palestinian Territories, close to her birthplace, where the potential for unrest is high. She had been studying Israeli civilian settlement in the West Bank, peace negotiations and demographics when she found herself in the middle of a military lockdown, the result of a terror attack near an Israeli settlement. Communications were down for a week. Violence took over the streets. An innocent life was lost.
Still, her passion for public policy remained strong. She moved back to Denver in mid-September to take a job at the U.S. Department of Commerce, promoting local participation in the 2020 Census. In her new role, she will be working closely with faith, immigrant, and refugee communities throughout the metro Denver community.
Data from the Census is used to appropriate federal funding to a number of programs based on population size. Without an accurate count, states and communities could miss out on funding.
After the Census, Nadeen’s not sure where life will take her, but one thing is certain: “I do know that I want to further my education. My sense of academic thirst still exists.”
For Medema, Nadeen represents the “very best” that CU Denver has to offer.
“I have long believed that a commitment to excellence is the surest road to diversity. Excellence knows no gender, skin color, religion, sexual orientation,” Medema said. “We only hope that Nadeen’s work within and beyond CU Denver serves as an example to others of what is possible.”