Sarah Beth Huntley
Shun Ahmed, the Vanderbilt Student Government (VSG) Vice President, shared with me a quote that well encapsulates her mission: “Always be the first Kurdish person to do it, but never be the last.” A member of the tight-knit Nashville Kurdish community, Shun’s background has greatly influenced the woman and leader she has become, and the struggles she has faced have driven her desire to set a standard rather than be an exception.
Shun intensely values community; having grown up in the largest Kurdish community outside of Kurdistan, she told me of how being part of such a closely connected community influenced her childhood. One example she share was her parents not allowing her to drive until she reached the age of 19, in Kurdish tradition. Shun defied community expectations, though, when she applied to elite colleges, including Vanderbilt, as well as many out-of-state schools. “I had the big, big dreams and I was the wild child, supposedly, just for wanting to go to college,” she told me. She worked to translate the different forms and applications for her parents, often figuring out the application process on her own. She said she felt lucky to have been accepted at Vanderbilt because it was the “best fit” for her. She now commits herself to helping Kurdish children navigate applications, hoping to become an inspiration to those younger than her. “College application season I allot time to proofread their essays and go through FAFSA with them because I’ve done it, I’ve figured it out, so I can help kids, so they don’t have to do it by themselves.”
This background of community and cooperation has also greatly influenced her work as a student leader, as she works to foster community within VSG and other programs. “As a student leader, a lot of my time goes into making people feel like a family,” she said. Shun participated in a mentor-mentee program as well as “think tank” groups within VSG and encouraged others to participate. These groups worked to connect upperclassmen and experienced VSG members with newcomers as well as to allow members to meet people outside of their specific groups. “It used to be you knew your committee or your senate, but now it’s everyone knows everyone which is not the final destination, I hope, but definitely a push in the right direction.”
Shun also discussed overcoming imposter syndrome at Vanderbilt. As a minority woman in student leadership as well as engineering, Shun has felt herself stand out, especially as a hijabi woman. “Whether in engineering or in administrative meetings, nine times out of ten I am the only woman in that room. Most times, more often that not, I walk into administrative meetings and I think ‘I don’t know why I’m here’ or ‘I feel underqualified.’” She talked about learning to overcome these anxieties, however, saying that she would tell herself “‘I got elected to this position. I know my stuff and I know why I’m here. I have everything prepared and I have people I can rely on.’ I deserve to be where I am because I worked to this point and no one can tell me I deserve this any less with the work I’ve already done to get there.” To others facing similar doubts, Shun offers this advice: “There are going to be times where you are going to feel like you don’t belong in that room or that room isn’t somewhere you’re supposed to be. But there is a reason you are there, there is some talent, some passion, something in you that put you right there and no one can demean that in any manner.” She also discussed the importance of representation; with her often being the first and only Kurdish person in the room, Shun emphasized that breaking barriers inspires others. “If you are the first person to walk into that room, and you create a doorway, and you create something for other people to come after you, you are doing something amazing.”
Shun’s passion for community and representation has also led to a passion for helping others, whether through activism or working to be kind in daily life. She discussed how mental health is not paid much attention to and, because of this, several members of the younger Kurdish generation have lost their battles to mental illness. Upon coming to Vanderbilt, she found a community that impressed upon her the importance of mental health and learned that, “You do not have to go through a single thing alone.” She has brought these ideals to kids in the Kurdish community, as well as to her peers at school, telling them, “If you need something, don’t be afraid to talk to someone you care about, and if it’s not your parents, I’m here.” She has also advocated for various social justice initiatives, such as connecting arrested Black Lives Matter protesters to lawyers willing to represent them pro bono. She also provides her technical expertise to live events throughout Nashville, often working lights or audio. Her biggest passion and future goal is to combine her spirit of volunteerism and activism with her love of engineering. “I’ll do the stuff in the sense of political campaigns. Bringing together activism and engineering is my goal in life, where it’s like ‘What can I do in engineering to help activists out in their work?’” She has already used these passions to lobby for the building of a mosque and hopes to continue with her activism by working for environmentally conscious corporations after finishing her education. Describing her ambitions in simple axiom, Shun says ““I love the idea of making things better for the place around me.”