Meet BU’s Newest Terriers: Mohamed Mohamed
Somali-American transfer student had to learn how to advocate for himself to succeed
This week, 3,147 freshmen and 931 transfer students will begin their careers at Boston University. It’s time to meet a few of them.
Mohamed Mohamed’s parents came to America in 1993, escaping the civil war in Somalia. When he was born, the family was living in Atlanta, Ga., but the crime in public housing there reminded his parents too much of the violence they had left behind. So when he was about a year old, they joined the growing Somali community in the mill town of Auburn, Maine, hoping for a better life. Higher education was definitely part of the plan.
“Coming to America, my parents wanted their kids to be as educated as possible,” Mohamed says. “They understood that we have many advantages here, and education plays an important role in achieving success.”
Mohamed (ENG’25) enters BU this semester on a full-tuition scholarship given each year to one transfer student from Bunker Hill Community College (BHCC). He’ll study computer engineering, with a focus on machine learning and artificial intelligence, but he’s already helping with research projects and has just completed a summer internship in his specialty of machine learning and artificial intelligence. Outside the classroom, he’s involved with programs to improve educational outcomes for Black men.
First, however, he had to improve those outcomes for himself.
Refusing to give up on himself
“I liked growing up in Maine,” Mohamed says. “It did have its challenges. It didn’t feel very accepting at first.” The growing Somali community was a controversial presence to some residents, but a new political leadership that pushed for acceptance and the growth of a Somali business strip in neighboring Lewiston made a big difference.
Even so, being the only Black kid in his elementary school and one of maybe 10 in middle school wasn’t always easy, Mohamed says, and he sometimes felt uncomfortable in class, and experienced microaggressions from some students and teachers.
“You don’t see a lot of people that look like you, and it can be intimidating,” he says, “especially when it comes to high school, and it’s time to put yourself in higher level courses so you can have a better track record for college, and the guidance counselors are more advocating for white students as opposed to students who weren’t white. You have to really advocate for yourself. You have to push for what you want.”
He had the example of the success of his older siblings—they include a brother who is a medical student at Brown, a sister with a master’s in public health from Brown, and another sister who graduated from UMass Amherst—but Mohamed says that actually made it harder in some ways, because he wasn’t as driven as they were.
“In high school I was like, I like sports more, I like arts more, I like being more creative. And I also was a very anxious kid in high school,” he says. “I didn’t know how to take up space. I didn’t know how to advocate for myself. I was very soft-spoken. I kind of had the same three or four friends. I didn’t really go out of the way to socialize. And that made it difficult for me to stand up for myself and say, ‘Hey, I want to be in AP courses.’”
As his siblings started college, his family moved to Massachusetts to be better situated for all the region’s schools. He convinced his parents he should take a gap year after high school to figure out what he wanted to do. He got a job registering patients in the emergency room at Tufts Medical Center while weighing various options, such as pursuing a business degree, and entered BHCC the next year, quickly running up against math classes that challenged him.
“I remember talking to my brother and I was getting very emotional, and I was like, I don’t know, I’m just not smart. I remember accepting defeat super early rather than just trying things,” he says. “And my brother taught me how to attack things that are difficult, attack challenges, take them head-on because challenges will always come.”
That summer he retook a precalculus course that had nearly defeated him in the spring.
I’m going to be the friend of people who look like me in my courses.
“Going into that course, I prepared myself a lot, watched a bunch of videos, did a lot of self-studying on algebra, and had a really good professor, so I said, you know what, I’m gonna step out of my comfort zone. Whenever I need help, I’m gonna ask. I’ll raise my hand every lecture. I would say, ‘Hey, I need help on this.’ And right after each lecture, I would kind of go straight to doing what I just learned, so it would stay in my long-term memory.
“The first exam comes, and I remember getting, I think, like an 89 or a high 90. I never had this kind of success before. And then all the exams, I was getting 90s, and I wasn’t giving up on myself.”
Calculus to coding
The confidence he acquired pushed Mohamed forward through calculus and physics. He left Bunker Hill after two years with associate degrees in both electrical engineering and mathematics. While there, he was accepted to a research internship at Northeastern University, where for the first time he delved into machine learning and optimization, on a project about energy storage and solar power. He had never written a line of code before, but he taught himself how because it involved a lot of data processing and analysis.
“It was a great experience for me. And a lot of the people around me came from these great universities like Northeastern and BU and MIT, and being in that kind of crowd made me kind of more zealous about my future,” he says. “I was taking on new things, new concepts, trying to grasp the fundamentals, and I was reading documentation and seeing what I can build. And from there I was like, wait—I like computer science.”
Before moving into his West Campus dorm room last week, Mohamed spent this summer on a machine learning internship with Watertown-based athenahealth, and he’s been spending time at BU’s Center for Computing & Data Sciences, volunteering on a research project there for credit. The project involved machine learning and web development for a research project at the Chobanian & Avedisian School of Medicine.
“I’m trying to just network in the best way I can and try to get my hands into any research I can,” he says.
He’s also trying to help those coming along behind him. While at Bunker Hill, Mohamed was involved with a Hack Diversity fellowship and with the HOPE Initiative, which supports Black and Latinx men in their studies. He has tutored Boston Public School students and is joining the National Society of Black Engineers chapter at BU while trying to help get one going at BHCC.
“I feel like having that network at community colleges would definitely propel a lot of students to become engineers,” Mohamed says. “A lot of students who look like me and who are interested in engineering don’t do it because they can’t deal with that uncomfortability of not being around anyone that looks like them.”
Another key inspiration in his journey to BU has been his father, who studied at Southern Maine University and became a registered nurse. His parents were ecstatic when he got the BU scholarship. “My brother called me up. He’s like, ‘I remember when you were about to drop calculus.’ I was like, ‘I do remember.’ I’m emotional about that,” Mohamed says. “It was an awesome kind of adult moment seeing how far I came and how far things can go. You just believe in yourself and support yourself and you just put your head down and you study.
“I’m trying to advocate for community college students because I’m always gonna be a community college student. That’s where I come from. I know how hard it is for community college students to make it to this kind of university.
“I got blessed, you know. I worked hard and I’m trying to give everyone the blueprint—do this, do this, do this, and do this. It helped me become a well-rounded engineer and learn how to advocate, not just for myself, but for the kids who come after me. I’m going be the friend of people who look like me in my courses.
“My mindset is definitely different now,” Mohamed says. “I don’t feel shy. I feel comfortable taking up my space. Because, you know, I am worth it.”