When Deqa Aden arrived as an exchange student at Worcester Academy from her native Somaliland, she found a space where she could reach her fullest potential.
The experiences and educational opportunities she was exposed to in Worcester, as well as her childhood in Somaliland, have helped her throughout her career.
Today, she is one of 25 people from around the world to have been named a 2022 Obama Foundation Scholar. The program gives, “rising leaders from the United States and around the world who are already making a difference in their communities the opportunity to take their work to the next level through an immersive curriculum that brings together academic, skills-based, and hands-on learning,” according to the foundation website.
“I just actually finished, this past weekend, my first page of the orientation where we met scholars from the University of Chicago, but also from Columbia University,” Aden said. “It was an inspiring space to meet people who are like-minded; have the same mentality of giving back to their communities, despite the costs, despite the sacrifice.”
She said it was also the first time she felt she didn’t have to explain to people, “why I do what I do.”
Aden will not only be able to meet former President Barack Obama, she will work with a personal coach, receiving career tips, leadership training and management leadership training.
There is an academic component, with weekly courses she’ll attend at the University of Chicago.
At the end, she and the other scholars will be a part of the Obama Foundation Scholars network, where she can connect with past and future scholars.
Desire to give back began early
Her desire to give back to people began from a young age, she said, in Somaliland, a self-declared independent country within the internationally recognized borders of Somalia.
Raised by a single mother, Aden said news and politics were staples of her household.
“All I wanted was to protect my mom, and I remember one day, I was telling my mom, ‘Mom, don’t worry about it. One day, I’m gonna be so powerful that I will protect you no matter what.’ So the aspiration of giving back comes from my own childhood experiences,” she said. “Of seeing my mom go through a lot as a woman in a country where there’s just so many economic, political and social constraints for a woman to reach their fullest potential.”
In 2009, Jonathan Starr, founder of Flagg Street Capital and a Worcester Academy alum, opened the Abaarso School of Science and Technology in Somaliland, where Aden would enroll as a student.
Starr served as an adviser to Aden while she enrolled in the school, and worked with his alma mater to offer some students the opportunity to spend an exchange year at the school.
By 2012, Aden found herself navigating the U.S. immigration system, trying to get her way to Worcester Academy, where she planned to spend the year as an exchange student.
“I tell my friends, ‘Don’t ever be the first to do anything because you have to go through a lot,'” Aden said. “(It) was just a really tough process for us to go through…it took us two days to arrive in America because of the immigration processes that we weren’t even aware of.”
Invited to return
Despite the challenges, Aden was finally able to reach Worcester for what was initially only meant to be a yearlong exchange program. However, she received an invitation to come back the next year and finish her high school diploma.
Worcester Academy challenged her academically and also gave her the chance to give back to the Worcester community by teaching kids music.
She said she also realized how access to these types of institutions was crucial in her development, but how limited access to them was for other people.
“As much as I was happy, I was also quite sad that I was the only African at Worcester Academy, let alone the only Somali,” Aden said. “I just realized how limited it was for people to have access to these institutions.”
From Worcester Academy, Aden then went on to Grinnell College in Iowa, where she studied psychology and political science, and considered a career in medicine or law.
Aden interned at a hospital and a law office and determined that neither career path was for her. Instead, she realized she was interested in international diplomacy.
For two years, Aden worked and lived in Washington, D.C., at the World Bank under the organization’s Finance, Competitiveness & Innovation Global Practice, supporting economic development projects in Central Asia.
“Throughout my business travels, I realized that I do have a deep passion for economic development, with the intersectionality of gender politics,” she said.
Return to native land
That interest led her back to Somaliland, in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic, for the first time since she was 16, not only reconnecting with her roots but also seeing the types of opportunities that existed for her there to make a difference.
“I was a manager at a business incubator in Hargeisa, Somaliland,” Aden said. “I was managing a small staff that was really basically dedicated to investing in youth and women who come from marginalized parts of the community, to be able to have access to finance to be able to build their businesses.”
She said the business incubator provided services including business training, mentorship and financing through grants. It was also a space where she got to interact with the youth of Somaliland.
“They also reminded me of when I was their age and had these aspirations of what I wanted to be,” Aden said. “Also to be able to reflect on the privileges that I’ve had in the U.S. to be able to have access to quality education; to be able to have access to a network. And I think within that one year, it solidified my path to service and international development.”
She began pursuing a master’s degree in public policy at the University of Chicago.
Aden said she isn’t sure where her career will take her after finishing graduate school, but she does know that she wants to take a role that will be able to maximize her impact and help people.
She has considered the idea of returning to Somaliland and running for office, but, “I never want it to be an idea of somebody or even something, like an image where ‘Oh, this is the woman who ran for presidency, and what a powerful thing to do.’ I never want to be that,” she said. “I actually go for results and for making a difference.”
Holistic advocacy center in Somaliland
Another idea is starting and running a nonprofit in Somaliland — the first holistic advocacy center for gender-based violence victims, she said.
“It’s going to be the first center in Somaliland where victims can actually get access to legal services, medical treatment and psychosocial treatments,” she said.
The other topic that Aden hopes to address is working to ensure that women don’t have to “prove their humanity” to the world.
“Every woman across the world is still making her way and still proving who she is, as a human being at a corporate level, at a cabinet level, at a communal level,” Aden said. “I really do hope that whatever I do I just really prove to society that women are worth it from the moment we were born, so we don’t have to prove who we are as human beings.”
Starr, who keeps in regular contact with Aden, said he wasn’t surprised to hear about her Obama Foundation Scholarship.
“She has this hopefulness about her that is remarkable, and it has led her to some pretty amazing successes,” Starr said. “I’m never really surprised by Deqa going for something, even if it seems kind of exceptional. And she’s quite charismatic, so I’m never not surprised when she gets it either.”