Truman Scholar Looks to a Better World for Refugee, Migrant Girls

Sandy Mekany, an SDSU senior, sees herself working to expand educational opportunities for those whove gone through experiences similar to hers.

Wednesday, April 12, 2023
Truman Scholar Sandrien Sandy Mekany (Photo: Nat Housan)
Truman Scholar Sandrien Sandy Mekany (Photo: Nat Housan)

There were times growing up in San Diego’s Scripps Ranch neighborhood that Sandrien “Sandy” Mekany experienced something of an identity crisis, wondering whether to consider herself Arab or American.

Mekany, who last week became San Diego State University's first-ever recipient of The Harry S. Truman Foundation’s graduate scholarship for public-service leadership, is the daughter of Arabic-speaking Chaldean refugees who fled Iraq during Saddam Hussein’s regime. 

She was born in San Diego but didn’t eat the same foods as her classmates: lunch was often from a Middle Eastern cuisine with kofta (a meatball dish) or lahm bi ajeen (a kind of meat pizza) for snacks. She struggled to pick up the English language and endured the anti-immigrant “terrorist” vibes of the day.

“I was too scared to speak up, because who’s going to defend me? I’m a little kid,” Mekany said. “I wanted to meet the idea of what was considered ‘American enough’ in the eyes of my peers and my community.”

The experience was a powerful influence on Mekany’s plans for where to take herself in life and her successful scholarship application. In it, she spoke of her hope to “make a true impact on people that were once in my shoes.”

Mekany is a senior, political science major and Associated Students officer whose many extracurricular activities include mentoring and tutoring younger students for the International Rescue Committee, a nonprofit focused on refugees, migrants and asylum-seekers. She says there’s a need for many more mentors like her.

“The biggest thing that I want to do is work in a career where I’m able to advocate for minority students to ensure that they have equitable educational opportunities,” she said.

“We need to find a way especially at the state level … to fund those opportunities,” she said. “There also needs to be more awareness of what’s happening around the world. In Afghanistan right now the Taliban has taken complete control and has dictated young girls’ lives. We should be able to collaborate at an international level to develop community-based programs for young girls across the globe."

It’s no surprise to hear Mekany particularly admires the diligence and compassion of Malala Yousafzai, the Pakistani Nobel Peace Prize laureate who while still in her teens launched an internationally recognized fight for girls’ right to learn.

Mekany got word of her award in an unannounced visit to her political science class last Thursday from SDSU President Adela de la Torre, Provost Salvador Hector Ochoa and other school officials. 

“Sandy's an incredibly hard-working scholar," said de la Torre. “She is clearly passionate about the issue of educational access and equity, particularly for those whose voices are seldom heard. Her capacity for hard work, for strategy and selflessness of service energizes those around her. She has made history representing SDSU as our first Truman Scholar. We are so fortunate to share in her bright light and accomplishments.”

The federally funded scholarship carries an award of up to $30,000 for graduate or professional school studies. 

“I’m so honored,” Mekany said Monday in an interview at her AS office. She credited Jacqueline Toy, associate director of SDSU’s Weber Honors College, her parents, and Ochoa’s daughter, Victoria Ochoa, herself a 2015 Truman Scholar from Saint Edward's University in Texas, with providing invaluable assistance.

“I worked on this application for almost two and a half to three months. There were nights when I didn’t sleep until literally four in the morning. It’s surreal to be the first person.”

She is among 62 Truman Scholars in the 2023 class, announced today, nominated by their respective colleges and universities and selected from 199 finalists. Mekany is the fourth California State University student to receive the scholarship, and the first since 2006.

“We have confidence that these 62 new Trumans will meet their generation's challenges together," said Terry Babcock-Lumish, the Foundation’s Executive Secretary and a 1996 Truman Scholar from Pennsylvania. “Selected from across America, the 2023 Truman Scholars reflect our country as innovative, purposeful, patriotic problem-solvers, never shying away from a challenge.”

The foundation recommends recipients hold off before pursuing an advanced degree and that’s what Mekany intends to do, hoping to snag a White House internship next fall. Long term, she’s thinking about graduate degrees both in education and law and work as a civil rights lawyer, maybe within the U.S. Department of Education and in a program specifically helping girls.

For now, the conflict she felt over her heritage and identity as a child wound up in a comfortable balance remarkably similar to her elementary school days.

Her English is impeccable but she speaks Arabic to her parents and follows a lot of her family’s culture and traditions of what is still a very small minority group in the U.S., concentrated in such widely separated communities as El Cajon and Detroit.

“I decided for myself that I’m not going to let anyone tell me who I am,” she said.

As reflected in the snacks she brought with her to campus on Monday: kofta and lahm bi ajeen.

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