The Saharan sun attacked my sunscreened skin. The 130-degree temperature was almost unbearable. I bent over and shoveled sand repeatedly, until exhaustion forced me to pass the shovel to the next member of my team. I had come to West Africa to help build a school for 800 children eager to learn. These eighteen days were among my most memorable experiences of triumphing over difficult obstacles, and as a deafblind woman I have certainly encountered many difficult obstacles. It required months of insistent self-advocacy to convince my Ethiopian father to let me volunteer abroad. His were valid worries: how would a girl with limited vision and hearing participate in a program that had little experience with students with disabilities? Through strong self-advocacy, I succeeded in both earning my father’s blessing and making a place for myself among the brick-making and culture-sharing.
High school is a time of change. When I joined buildOn my sophomore year of high school, I was searching for skills that would allow me to change the world. Before I joined buildOn, I asked myself whether a woman with disabilities could have a positive impact in the world. I shared my worries with Abby Hurst, the program leader at my high school. “So, can I really go to Mali? How exactly am I going to help build a school?” Her answer held optimism and determination, “We’ll find a way, we’ll figure it out. It’ll be an adventure.” Long after my memorable trip to Mali, buildOn’s spirit of optimism and determination has continued to propel me forward. My college admissions essay described how buildOn inspired me to study cultural anthropology, and as a result, I won a full-tuition scholarship at Lewis & Clark College. A few years later, in my law school application, I symbolized my commitment to public service through an anecdote from Mali. Thanks to the magic of Mali, I am now finishing my first year at Harvard Law School.
High school students stand waiting and ready to take on challenges that guide them into a productive adult life. When you give these students the opportunity to engage in meaningful community service, you give them the skills of leadership that will remain lifelong assets. Without the positive support I received from buildOn’s staff members or the volunteer opportunities in my community and abroad, I probably wouldn’t have survived Harvard Law or even met President Obama at the White House last summer. And it all started at fifteen, “I want to go to Africa and build a school.” I learned people with disabilities have the power to change the world. I learned courage. I learned my limitless limits. I would have never guessed back in high school that joining buildOn would have lead me to so many more great things. Thank you, and now please join me in welcoming the future buildOn alumai onto the stage.