It was in Grand Island, Neb., of all places, that Ali – a native of Somalia who grew up in Kenya – discovered Wake Forest. That’s where he was paired with Jordan Adam (’04) in the Big Brothers/Big Sisters program. Adam was so impressed with Ali’s background and intelligence that when their conversations turned to Ali’s college plans he insisted that he take a look at Wake Forest.
“Why did (they) name a school Wake and Forest,” Ali remembers thinking when Adam first mentioned his alma mater. “I had never heard of Wake Forest since I had only been in the country for two years.”
Ali, a junior majoring in political science, was born in Somalia, but his family moved to Kenya when he was little to escape the Civil War breaking out in his native country. They later moved to London and then to the United States, where they settled in Nashville, Tenn. After one of his brothers and an uncle moved to Grand Island, Neb., Ali followed them. There, he joined a Big Brothers/Big Sisters program and was matched with Adam, an attorney and Nebraska native.
Adam was immediately impressed with “Yazi,” as he calls him. “He had such big ideas, and it was remarkable how informed he was on foreign affairs,” says Adam, who now practices commercial litigation and insurance defense with a law firm in Omaha, Neb. “He had a unique world view by virtue of his ethnicity and time in Kenya. He could speak on a variety of subjects, and the best part of speaking with him was how engaging he could be.”
As a high school senior, Ali founded a non-profit organization, the Nebraska Somali Community Association, to help Somali refugees moving to Nebraska. He also took up the cause of Somalis working in a meatpacking factory in Grand Island and helped them file an employment discrimination suit. He also earned a certificate as a nursing assistant and worked in a veterans’ home in Grand Island.
It was that work ethic and ingenuity that convinced Adam that Ali would thrive at Wake Forest. “Knowing what Wake had done for me, I knew that a person like Yasin would be successful in that kind of environment – in fact, he needed that kind of environment to cultivate his intellectual curiosity.”
Ali still had one more stop to make before following Adam to Wake Forest. After his brother and uncle moved from Nebraska to Indiana, Ali followed them to Indianapolis, where he graduated from high school and spent the summer as fleet manager for a cab company.
As Adam suspected, Ali has thrived at Wake Forest. As a freshman, he ran his own airport ground transportation company, the Wake Shuttle Service. Two summers ago he interned with the Center for Refugees and Immigrants in Nashville, Tenn., through the Wake Forest Entrepreneurial Fellowship program. Last summer, he interned with World Relief in High Point, N.C., through Wake Forest’s Institute for Public Engagement.
He has conducted his own research into the plight of Somali youth forced from their country, and he hopes to continue his work in Kenya next semester, where many Somali refugees live. He has also applied for a research grant to return to Somalia next summer. He is one of the editors of a new interdisciplinary journal at Wake Forest, the Journal of International Affairs, which plans to publish work by students who have done research abroad. He’s considering attending law school or perhaps earning a master’s in international relations to prepare for a career in foreign affairs or diplomacy.
Ali is grateful that he crossed paths with Adam back in Nebraska, and that that path led him to Wake Forest. “I didn’t know anything about the college process; he (Adam) helped guide me. I wouldn’t be here without him.”
Yasin Ali was featured on HuffPost Live, an online news network of the Huffington Post, on Sept. 28 discussing Somali’s recently elected president. Watch for him around the 8-minute mark.