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Commencement Student Speaker’s Road to Self-Discovery

Yasmin Younis (COM’18) reclaimed her Arabic identity at BU

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Yasmin Younis was in kindergarten when al-Qaeda extremists highjacked four airplanes and attacked the World Trade Center and other targets on September 11, 2001, yet the event cast a shadow on much of her life.

Living in Missouri, the daughter of Iraqi immigrants, Younis (COM’18) became “that Arab girl,” she says, and endured taunts from classmates who commonly referred to her as a terrorist.

“It kind of made me hate myself,” Younis says, recalling her embarrassment about her family’s Muslim religious customs and her skin color. “The person I am now is very different. I’m very comfortable with who I am.”

Younis reflects on her path as she puts the finishing touches on the speech she will deliver Sunday to a crowd of about 27,000 graduates and guests at Nickerson Field as BU’s Commencement student speaker.

The thing that really helped her, says the 22-year-old honors mass communication major, was the Black Lives Matter movement. As a freshman at the University of Missouri in 2014, Younis participated in the street demonstrations in St. Louis after a grand jury acquitted the white Ferguson, Mo., police officer who fatally shot Michael Brown, an unarmed black man, igniting weeklong protests against police brutality in Ferguson.

The incident made Younis realize that a Muslim of any color could also very likely face similar treatment by police, and she says she has been a member of Black Lives Matter ever since. “I had to become more in tune with that side of myself rather than being ashamed of it, because that’s really hypocritical,” she says. “Being in college and being away for the first time allowed me to have that sense of freedom to experiment with who I was.”

Younis transferred to BU as a sophomore, with the support of her parents. Her cardiologist father came to the United States for his medical residency and her mother in the 1990s, fleeing the Gulf War.

BU, she says, offered a new and energizing environment for her to explore her budding passions while reclaiming her Arab identity. “I was getting to meet a lot of other people who are like-minded, people who might not be Muslim or Arab, but who were part of a first-generation family or persons of color,” she says. “That really helped me.”

She has become proficient in Arabic and was president of the Arabic Society as well as the public relations coordinator for the BU Admissions Student Diversity Board.

Last year, Younis participated in a video produced by Teen Vogue about the effects of Halloween costumes that display offensive cultural stereotypes. The video went viral on Facebook and was viewed more than 36,000 times.

Younis was chosen by a seven-member Student Speaker Selection Committee, which began the process of vetting nearly 40 speech proposals earlier this spring. She came out on top after she and several other finalists presented their remarks in person.

“She just stood out for her poise and her enthusiasm and the way she blended a lot of themes,” says committee member Tammy Vigil, a College of Communication assistant professor of communication. Younis’ remarks had all the hallmarks of a good speech, Vigil says: they were personal and relatable, while weaving together ideas about the value of diversity and unity.

“It didn’t feel like a five-minute speech,” she adds. “It was engaging enough to carry the situation.”

Younis wrote successive drafts, practicing in front of the committee and listening to feedback from members. It was an invaluable experience, she says, for a student interested in working as a communications liaison for a human rights nonprofit or becoming an activist lawyer.

She will continue to seek ways to help people understand the beautiful aspects of Iraqi culture and the Muslim faith, Younis says. After Commencement, she will return to St. Louis to celebrate a traditional Ramadan with her family, a practice she now treasures.

She smiles when she recalls her transformation from a high schooler eager to fit in to a young woman who might spend a typical Friday night reading news reports or The Autobiography of Malcolm X.

“Now all I really ever talk about is being Iraqi and being Muslim,” Younis says. “I can’t even imagine being ashamed anymore.”

Find more information about Commencement here.

Megan Woolhouse can be reached at megwj@bu.edu.

3 Comments

3 Comments on Commencement Student Speaker’s Road to Self-Discovery

  • Ahmed Dulaimi on 06.03.2018 at 4:55 pm

    Dear Yasmin,

    Nice speech for the most part, but I am perplexed why you turned it political at the very end? Also, myself and many Iraqi Americans that listened to it are still wondering why only black lives matter? What about all the other races? And your support for Palestinians is commendable but why didn’t you mention the plight of the poor Iraqis that have lost hundreds of thousands of lives more than Palestinians – why don’t you mention how Iran is systematically destroying Iraq and established a sectarian/authoritarian government since 2003 ? Or maybe you can see it in yourself to denounce any the Iranian backed terrorist Militias called Alhashd that roams Iraq killing people of a different sect and pretending that they are fighting ISIS bastards …Or maybe you were raised to believe that Iraqi lives don’t matter much cuz they are neither black nor Palestinian!

    I will assume you chose which political message to disseminate at this event based solely on public consumption and to get the crowd cheering. If true, then thats pathetic

    I suggest that next time you give a speech that you show some support for the poor Iraqi people- if infact your parents are originally Iraqi which I am now skeptical about.

    We are not impressed !

    And for what it’s worth – I will say it again: ALL lives matter regardless of skin color or ethnicity or religion….stop racism!

    Peace

    • ali on 06.06.2018 at 1:17 am

      Ahmed —

      Your “all lives matter” point is counterintuitive; it is like saying “save the rainforest” vs “save the trees” — it is not saying that all trees do not matter, but rather that rainforests are in danger at a rate other trees are simply not. the point of black lives matter is not to comment on how other lives do not matter and it has never been that and to reduce it as such is an act of narcissism. as a white woman, I am simply not targeted by other white people / police / etc. as poc are. Black lives mattering is an issue that is integral to the US now; it is just not a comment on other races! and as someone that was there, Yasmin’s speech was amazing. I am impressed!

      What I’m not impressed with is the previous comment, how it misinterpreted and critiqued Yasmin’s speech in all the wrong ways.

      Her speech stood out, even next to John Lewis (!!!!) What a feat, what a woman.

  • Ahmed Dulaimi on 06.08.2018 at 4:13 pm

    Ali-

    I disagree that the police treat or mistreat anyone based on their skin color- maybe back in the 60s- but not today. Attitude, resisting arrest or even mouthing off can set off a chain reaction – I’m “brown” and have been pulled over for speeding many times over the years and have never had an issue and have been treated with the utmost respect. Treat our men in blue with respect and I guarantee it that there will not be an issue.

    Cops now are afraid to pull over any blacks cuz they don’t wanna deal with all the drama.

    I am sure this is not what you wanna hear, but the difference between us is that I am realistic while you live in lala land.

    You should stop advocating that people should get preferential treatment cuz of their skin color- EVERYONE on earth is the same!

    Peace

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