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Lawmakers encourage Utah's ethnic youths to pursue educational excellence

The ceiling of the Rotunda at the Capitol in Salt Lake City Tuesday, Feb. 17, 2015.
The ceiling of the Rotunda at the Capitol in Salt Lake City Tuesday, Feb. 17, 2015.
Chelsey Allder, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Syeda Hashmi said her family sacrificed almost everything when they moved to the United States from Pakistan in 2012 — all in search of better education and opportunity.

Syeda said she barely knew English three years ago, and when she started school in Utah she was bullied for being a Muslim.

Today, the 15-year-old boasts a perfect grade-point average as a Taylorsville High School student who is concurrently working toward her associate degree and has already been awarded college scholarships.

Syeda stood before more than 800 of her peers Thursday to deliver a fiery speech, encouraging Utah’s multicultural youths to achieve their educational goals.

“Today, a Pakistani girl, who is grateful to be in America, grateful for the opportunities, the free education afforded to me by my new homeland, would like to make a difference and wants each one of you to join me,” Syeda declared to her peers.

Ethnically diverse Utah children packed into the state Capitol rotunda for the third annual Multicultural Youth Leadership Day on Thursday. The event, organized by the Utah Office of Multicultural Affairs, is meant to inspire ethnic Utahns to take advantage of their education and work hard to succeed, said Claudia Nakano, director of state multicultural affairs.

“We want to encourage the understanding of civic engagement because these are the leaders of tomorrow,” she said. “We want them to be able to know what that means to be involved and hopefully to be the voice of the citizens in the years to come.”

Nakano said the event was created in support of Gov. Gary Herbert’s 66 by 2020 education initiative, a goal for 66 percent of Utahns to hold a postsecondary degree by 2020.

Utah’s demographics are shifting and minority numbers are rising, Nakano said. Last year, data from the Utah State Office of Education showed Utah high school graduation rates increased by 2 percent from 2013, with minority students seeing more rapid increases than the overall average.

Multiple lawmakers and state officials also spoke to inspire the youths, including Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah; Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes; and Sens. Jim Dabakis, D-Salt Lake City, and Todd Weiler, R-Woods Cross.

“We want to show them that this is their house, that the Capitol belongs to them as much as any other citizen in Utah," said Geoff Fattah, communication director of Utah Department of Heritage and Arts.

"But also we want to show lawmakers this is part of Utah’s future because the demographics are changing in Utah so much that it’s anticipated by 2040 Utah’s minority population will be in the majority in Utah. And so we need to get these kids to be prepared to be good citizens, have a good education, be healthy and just be good contributors to society,” Fattah said.

Reyes told the youths they need to remember the American dream is not a guarantee of success, but only a guarantee of opportunity.

"So you have to take advantage of that," he said. "You're not just living the American dream. You're living your own dream."

Syeda said she hopes her peers learn from her example and won't allow the unique challenges many of them face stop them from reaching their goals, whether they're still learning English or if they feel like they're treated differently because of their ethnicity.

"It’s really important for me to inspire others because I want a community where everyone can help each other in their difficult times," she said. "If we want our future to be bright, all of us have to work together as a team so that we can achieve our goals."