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Sy overcomes obstacles to achieve academic excellence

For Emory senior Kadiata Sy, the prospect of completing undergraduate studies brings bright hopes for the future, a horizon brimming with possibilities.

As one of four Emory students selected to receive the 2015-2016 Robert T. Jones Jr. Scholarship, Sy will embark upon studies at St. Andrews University in Scotland this fall, where she plans to pursue a one-year Master of Letters in Middle East, Caucasus and Central Asian security — an opportunity that thrills her.

But for Sy, it’s impossible to contemplate the future without acknowledging the past.

Memories of a childhood spent in a West African refugee camp along the Senegal River have faded a bit, to be sure. But colorful threads are still kept alive through family stories.

Her parents’ flight from politically unstable Mauritania to a refugee camp near Podor in Northern Senegal, where Sy was born. The joy of finally moving into a homemade one-room mud-brick house. Lives spent farming tomatoes and okra and herding sheep on leased government land — traditional occupations within the Fulani tribe, among the world’s largest group of semi-nomadic people.

Looking back, those moments now seem a lifetime away for Sy, who graduates May 11 as a double major, with a focus in political science and Middle Eastern and South Asian Studies (MESAS). In her spare time she helped found the student-run Association of Middle Eastern Studies and served as director of the Emory Model Arab League, all while working as an Arabic language tutor.

With funding from the Bobby Jones Scholarship, Sy plans to continue studies in slavery and Islamic law, working toward a career in community building and conflict resolution as an international human rights lawyer.

This is the perfect path, she says, for someone whose experience straddles both time spent in an African refugee camp and in pursuit of higher education.

Resiliency and courage

“I don’t remember it now, but my parents like to tell the story of when I was 7 or 8 years old and I went out to take care of the goats and sheep. I apparently got lost and they couldn’t find me for a day — but I was no worse for it,” Sy recalls, laughing.

That kind of resiliency, along with the ability to show courage in the face of adversity, are qualities important to the Fulani people, part of a traditional tribal code.

It also helps explain how a young woman with no formal childhood education — from a family that spoke no English — could journey from the arid plains of Senegal to find academic success at one of the nation’s top liberal arts research universities.

Sy was 11 years old when her parents and seven siblings came to Atlanta. She started middle school while simultaneously learning to read English language nursery rhymes. By the time she entered Decatur High School, Sy was taking Advanced Placement classes.

“My drive for higher education has always come from my parents,” she explains. “They never went to school — they never had the opportunity. But they instilled in their children a desire to strive for higher education, in the hope we would go back to Mauritania and help change the social situation there.”

Discovering an academic oasis

From the beginning, Emory was her dream destination. Growing up near Decatur, she came to view the university as a kind of academic oasis.

There were so many reminders. One of her high school history teachers had attended Emory. Even the woman who helped her family settle in Atlanta, a former Peace Corps volunteer, had gone to Emory.

“I knew that I wanted to go to a university like that, that welcomed people from different cultures and backgrounds,” Sy recalls. “Emory became a focus for me, a goal I wanted to achieve.”

First, Sy attended Georgia Perimeter College (GPC), where she expected to take a few courses and then transfer. Instead, she completed two associate degrees, one in political science, another in philosophy.

She also blossomed, participating in the GPC Honors program, receiving the 2012 Clarkston Campus President’s Award, serving as president of the Clarkston Student Government Association, and founding the campus Philosophy Club.

“Kadiata is thoughtful, intelligent and driven — someone who doesn’t so much dream about her future as plan for it,” recalls Bob King, an associate professor of political science at GPC, who also did doctoral studies at Emory.

 “It’s always full steam ahead,” King says. “Rarely does her past hold her back.”

Exploring educational interests

When Sy was awarded the prestigious Jack Kent Cooke scholarship, a national honor that provides up to $90,000 for undergraduate transfer students, her last year at GPC, there was no question where she wanted to study.

At Emory, the chance to pursue degrees in political science and MESAS would prove “intense, but really liberating,” Sy says.

“I liked the fact that Emory let me explore my interests in my country, Islamic law and slavery. It’s not something most schools offer — the ability to have that academic niche and still have a sense of community and support.”

Part of her experience included an intensive Arabic summer abroad program in Morocco — Sy’s first trip to Africa since her family left, says Rkia Cornell, professor of pedagogy and Arabic Program coordinator for MESAS.

Yet through the challenges, Cornell saw her student thrive. “With Kadiata, it wasn’t just ambition; she delivered leadership and service to others, always with a contagious smile and always moving forward.”

“Her background, her circumstances, are never something that she wears or uses — she’s not that kind of person,” she adds. “Instead, she projects an amazing kind of positivity, which I respect. I have no doubt that she will make a difference in the world.”

Ask Sy what has kept her going along her academic journey and she’ll talk of luck.

“When I think about relatives back home who’ve never had this chance . . .” she says, her voice faltering. “To be given the opportunity, I always felt as if I just had to try. I just had to try. I mean, what did I have to lose?”

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