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Challenge Accepted: Graduating Changemakers Share Stories of Perseverance

Six accomplished forthcoming graduates talk about the most significant challenges they faced at AU and how they found a way to overcome them.

Six 2023 spring graduates represent AU's changemaking ethos.Clockwise from top left, Khushi Khungar, Skylar White, Isaiah Washington, Mariam Toure, Maria Prymak, and Isabella Igbanugo.

By Jonathan Heeter 

As they stroll across the stage at Bender Arena over the next two weekends to collect their degrees, more than 3,400 graduates will all have faced some sort of adversity along their journeys.  

Their trials could be personal. Or represent academic roadblocks. They might be a mixture of both as these students found their way to this moment.  

Here, six accomplished changemakers share how they overcame the most significant challenges they faced at AU. 

Isabella Igbanugo, SPA/BA ’23, Justice and Law

Igbanugo received a scholarship from the National AIDS Memorial that supports students dedicated to social and health justice.

I was terrified the first time I stepped on campus. Like many other students, I was wary of the future, afraid to make mistakes, battling imposter syndrome, and grappling with the path I wanted to take.

Leaving here, I feel entirely different, with a sense of clarity, boldness, and excitement for the future I didn't initially have. I feel my experience at AU was transformative in a way I couldn't have imagined. After four years of late nights, good friends, long hours, a few tears, scrapbook-worthy memories, and too much coffee, I now know uncertainty leaves room for discovery, mistakes foster growth, and the best way to approach fear is to do the things that scare us anyway. I'm not afraid to move through the world with authenticity, to take up space, or to make mistakes. I understand that even though graduation is a prize, the greatest gift is who we had to become to walk across that stage, including the pandemic and all the grief, disappointment, and anxiety it uprooted. Commencement brings everything full circle, and I couldn't be prouder to graduate as an Ebony Eagle.

Khushi Khungar, Kogod/BS ’23, Business Administration 

Khungar, who won the Charles Glover Award for her citizenship and business leadership, impacted the lives of hundreds of Kogod students as their teaching assistant. 

My biggest challenge was finding a way to feel represented as an Indian American woman. Just as I thought I was starting to get the hang of things, the world was hit with COVID-19. Striking a balance between academics, extracurriculars, and work felt more challenging than ever. 

When we returned to campus, I set goals for everything—even one that seemed unattainable like taking my dance team, the American Bhangra Crew, to a nationally competitive level. We went from a group of five people on Zoom, to an on-campus team and, then finally, to competing on the stages I had dreamed of as a freshman. I started this journey as a dancer, then a choreographer, then vice president, and finally, president. What I had set my mind to had never been accomplished, but my business leadership skills came into play, and I attained this goal. As I performed on stage from Nashville to New Jersey this year, it felt like a full-circle moment. I am so grateful for the supportive and encouraging community at AU—the American University Club Council financially supported our team—for making this dream possible.  

Maria Prymak, SOC/BA ’23, Public Relations and Strategic Communications 

Prymak crafted a successful public relations strategy as part of her capstone to help publicize DC nonprofit More Than Our Crimes, which includes individuals who’ve been convicted of crimes in proposals designed to end mass incarceration.  

I’ve had the opportunity to explore various extracurricular activities both on campus and in DC. The range of possibilities was immense, and while it was exciting, it was sometimes challenging to balance everything with a full academic schedule. The culture here encourages students to pursue internships, join clubs, take on jobs, and engage in volunteer projects, all while maintaining a well-rounded personal life. 

I often found time management difficult as I wanted to participate in many activities. I learned that the key to balancing a busy schedule is focusing on the things in my control. While comparing yourself to others in college is easy, everyone is on their path, so staying true to what matters most to you is essential. I grew up competitively figure skating, but I thought I needed focus on other interests when I started college. I eventually realized that I deeply missed skating and was able to reconnect with the sport as a coach. This allowed me to find balance and prioritize my mental health by engaging in relaxing and rewarding physical activity that helped me escape the demanding nature of being a student. I learned that finding time for yourself and incorporating activities that take your mind off academic and professional commitments is the best way to overcome the feelings of an overwhelming and demanding schedule. While it may seem that being overly productive is best, I have found that focusing on the activities, people, and passions that truly matter to you is much better. 

Mariam Toure, SOE/MA ’23, International Training and Education 

Toure completed her coursework while holding down a job that supported her, her husband, and her family living in Burkina Faso.  

The biggest challenge I have overcome during my graduate studies these past two and a half years is financial hardship. As the sole provider for my husband and myself and supporting my family back home, financial responsibilities have affected my ability to keep up with my tuition. Moreover, my status as a full-time student and professional on a specific VISA did not allow me to earn additional funds to support my studies. I owe it to SOE for overcoming this.  

I was granted a merit scholarship when I started my program. I couldn't have otherwise been able to afford my degree. I thought the merit award would be enough to cover the remaining tuition and fees out of pocket, but life got in the way, and I had more financial responsibilities. SOE dean Cheryl Holcomb-McCoy helped me access funds for struggling students that kept me in school. With SOE’s financial support, I could focus on my studies, and I would not have completed my degree in a critically timely manner without the help.  

Isaiah Washington, CAS/BA ’23, English Language and Literature 

Washington, a Frederick Douglass Distinguished Scholar, received AU’s Harold Johnson Award, which honors a student for promoting cultural and racial diversity and understanding. 

An obstacle for me was finding a place for myself in academia’s Dewey Decimal System, a place to shelve my varied interests and passions. I believed I had to cleave off parts of myself to fit into academia’s glass slipper, but it was through these intersections of self that I located my academic identity. I have been able to hybridize the gifts of my literature major and political science minor, seeing the former as the fuel and the latter as the pedal for my research being a vehicle for positive social change." 

My academic journey called for me to complicate the idea that the scholarly has to be oppositional to the personal. Pulling from personal places for much of my coursework, I have used my family history as the foundation of my senior thesis. I produced a paper that combined a critical analysis of speculative fiction with my own science fiction story, my creative work serving as a narrative exercise practicing the tropes and trends I was analyzing. My academic voice was given a microphone because of my experiences at American University.  

Skylar White, SIS/BA ’23, International Relations and Affairs 

White was a program leader for an AU Alternative Break Program trip to Honduras and led Complex Problems sections as a peer leader. 

As a student from a low-income background, I've had to navigate a challenging journey of balancing my coursework with extracurriculars, internships, and on-campus jobs to support myself. 

However, this challenge turned out to be my greatest strength at AU. By working hard and remaining dedicated to equity at all intersections I’ve learned new skills and met dozens of inspiring and devoted individuals within the AU and broader DC community. I am incredibly grateful for the growth I have experienced over the years and look forward to bringing what I’ve learned to any community of which I get to be a part.