UB scholarship

From left, Peter Pfordresher, President Satish K. Tripathi, Jean Wactawski-Wende, H Fogarty and Megan Stewart surprised Samiha Isla, center, with the news that she had been awarded the prestigious Truman scholarship. (Photo by Douglas Levere)

BUFFALO — An anti-racism activist and community organizer studying statistics and health and human services is the University at Buffalo’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.

After receiving notification from the Truman Foundation that Islam had been selected as a 2023 Truman Scholar, UB 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.”

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.

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. “I believe that oppressive conditions like poverty, hunger, homelessness and even diseases like COVID-19 have been distributed systemically, not randomly.”

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, Islam is also the recipient of a 2022 Key into Public Service Scholars award from Phi Beta Kappa.

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.”

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