2021 Counseling: Ayah Said

Ayah’s interest in social justice started at an early age. Growing up, she heard about her parents’ native Eritrea and the oppression its citizens faced.

Ayah took classes at Cypress College because of the Charger/Pledge program’s free tuition for students who graduate from any high school in the Anaheim Union High School District. What kept her engaged at the school was the Legacy Program. Through it, Ayah spoke at events, helped represent the club at Kindercaminata, and aided in planning student activities such as debates, a financial literacy panel, a mentor-mentee networking mixer, a racial trauma mental health workshop, and a colorism workshop.

For the future, Ayah wants to combine her passion for social justice with health care administration. Her next step is to transfer to Cal State Long Beach; after that, she wants to advocate for health care as a human right.

“I believe that a sustainable and equitable healthcare system that recognizes health as a right and not a privilege, will percolate into different facets of society like our education, criminal justice reform, environment, and more.”

Counseling student Ayah Said poses in front of blue background with Legacy Program sash.

Please tell us about yourself. Where did you grow up? What are your interests? What is your story?

My parents are from a small country in the Eastern region of Africa, called Eritrea located on the coast of the Red Sea. My mother escaped the country that was in war with Ethiopia to gain independence, at the age of 7. In Eritrea, it is prohibited to leave the country without government permission. If you are caught trying to escape you are imprisoned. Fortunately, my mother and her family safely left and she lived in a multitude of countries from Sudan, to Saudi Arabia, to Italy, to Canada, before coming to America. My father escaped the country later in his life, living in Sudan, before gaining a visa to come to America.

Growing up I quickly learned about the human rights violations that Eritrea faces. It is in every sense a totalitarian dictatorship, lead by one dictator who rose to power right after Eritrea gained independence from the 30-year war with Ethiopia, propelling another 30 years of arbitrary detention and enforced disappearances of thousands of citizens, politicians, religious leaders, journalists, government critics, without access to families and lawyers. There is a mandatory national service program after the age of 18, that is for indefinite periods extending for much longer than the legal limit of 18 months. The right to leave the country is still restricted and people are prevented from travelling abroad without government permission, which has led to thousands of Eritreans to flee the country.

My interests lie in advocating for the voiceless, whether it be through healthcare, local organizations, the global Eritrean movement, etc.

What are you most passionate about? Why?

I am passionate about the intersection of healthcare and social justice.

Counseling student Ayah Said in graduation regalia in front of the Cypress College pond.

Why did you choose Cypress College?

I chose to begin my education at a community college because it was cost efficient and flexible. While attending school, I was also working a part time job. The community college experience would allow me the flexibility to take certain courses online if needed, attend night classes if needed, and save money. Also, Cypress College offered dual enrollment classes at my high school, allowing me to gain a head start in my college education. What solidified Cypress College as my college of choice was the Charger/Pledge program that offered free tuition for students who graduate from any high school in the Anaheim Union High School District. Furthermore, Cypress College has a higher transfer out rate compared to various local community colleges, supporting my goals of transferring within two years. In addition, Cypress College was the closest college to my house, enabling me to be in close proximity to my siblings in order to drop them off and pick them up from school.

What have you been involved in at Cypress College? How has your path unfolded?

I was invited to speak at one of the Black History Month events in 2020, “Understanding Culture through the film Black Panther.” That was my first involvement at Cypress College. Further, I successfully helped plan events for the Legacy program cohorts including student debates, financial literacy panel, mentor-mentee networking mixer, racial trauma mental health workshop, and colorism workshop. Each of these events included a keynote speaker that contributed to the facilitation of the workshop.

In addition, due to my interest in the health field, I have participated with ROP and received a Biomedical Innovations certificate. Social activism is an additional facet that I am passionate about. I participated in the Muslim Youth Leadership Program that took place in Sacramento and gained hands-on training in the areas of civic engagement and media advocacy, as well as debated important public policy issues ranging from police conduct, public safety, pharmaceutical company regulations. I also met with elected officials like Senator Ed Hernandez to lobby legislation.

Share a memorable event or experience while you’ve been a Cypress College student.

I was only on campus for a semester and a half but Kindercaminata was an event that the Legacy cohort scholars helped plan and we came out in strong numbers. We had face painting, multiple games, candy at our booth and we had so many kids come to our table. It was memorable because as Legacy scholars we showed and represented the program, and it was truly a bonding experience and one of the last in person interactions we had before the pandemic.

Student Ayah Said holds a Cypress College pennant in front of the Campanile.

Who are the faculty and staff (in your major, an academic or other support program, etc.) who have helped you get where you are today?

Professor Rhymes, Professor Lind, and Professor Armstead for being the support system that I desperately needed coming into Cypress College. Professor Armstead for guiding me reiterating that he was there if I needed help. Professor Lind for making Ethnic Studies digestible no matter how heavy the topics we learned were. Professor Rhymes for literally grabbing me during one of the Cypress college events for new students and telling me about the program and continuously encouraging and advocating for me throughout my time at this college. I without a doubt would not be here speaking to you if it were not for her. Also, Dr. Schilling for being supportive at the events that I spoke at or organized. She has always affirmed my opinions while at this college.

How has Cypress College supported you throughout your time at the college?

The college has supported me through student support programs like the Legacy Program.

What are your immediate plans after completing your studies at Cypress College (at your transfer institution, in the workforce, etc.)?

I will be participating in the Cope Health Scholars program at Kaiser Permanente where I have the opportunity to shadow physicians, nurses, administrators and learn about patient care. Hopefully get accepted to the summer internships that I have been applying to, as well as working with the Legacy program in some capacity to support the longevity of the program. I will be planning to CSULB. Go Beach ! and continue to pursue my degree there and hopefully get involved with campus clubs and programs there as well.

What are your long-term goals? What do you aspire to?

I am passionate about the intersection of social justice and healthcare, which is influencing me to consider pursuing public health or law for my graduate school. I hope to be working as hospital department heads, at an executive level that may allow me to advocate for public health policies that will contribute to our growing healthcare system. I believe that a sustainable and equitable healthcare system that recognizes health as a right and not a privilege, will percolate into different facets of society like our education, criminal justice reform, environment, and more. I hope that my degree will allow me the opportunity to advocate for an equitable healthcare system and my career goal is to contribute to an evolving healthcare system that can sometimes feel incredibly fragile.

What are you most proud of?

In the start of 2020 I picked up a book titled “Year of Yes: How to Dance It Out, Stand In the Sun and Be Your Own Person” by Shonda Rhimes. The essence of the book reiterated the notion of saying yes to anything and everything that scares you, because ultimately that is the most efficient way to facilitate self-growth. When I was asked to participate in one of the Black History Month activities, I had to ignore the initial “No” that sat at the tip of my tongue and told myself that facing my fear could open up opportunities for me. I am proud that I said yes that day, because since then I have participated on campus and been offered the chance to speak and organize multiple events.

What one bit of advice would you give to current and future Cypress College students?

If you are able to get involved on campus in whatever capacity, do it! This college wants to hear from students to continue to improve the campus. Also, try building relationships with instructors and faculty because those relationships may allow you to participate in opportunities you didn’t even know existed.

How have you been impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic? What has gotten you through and/or what have you learned from it?

I am fortunate due to the fact that no one in my immediate family has died due to COVID-19. The only impact that I have faced is decreased focus and engagement as a student, especially during the beginning of the pandemic. Working with the Legacy Program helped me engage with the campus, despite feeling isolated from it. The program offers various community-focused events that encourage students in their studies, like their weekly study hall Zooms, workshops related to mental health, jam study sessions and Jeopardy study sessions. Organizing student-focused events like student debate panels that encourage students to engage academically and have fun with debating topics like reparations and capitalism was a beneficial experience.

Is there anyone in particular you’d like to thank?

My mother for being the epitome of the woman I will always strive to be like.

Is there anything else you’d like to share?

I want to express my gratitude for having me here and for allowing me the opportunity to share my story. Cypress College will always be recognized as a significant step in my educational journey.