It came in the form of a big brown envelope, unassumingly thin, with my name printed in small block letters.
For me, opportunity presented itself in the unexpected form of an acceptance to law school and an invitation to be among the first in my community to enter a professional field. My acceptance letter weighed heavily in my hands and on my mind as I considered all that it represented beyond the contents inside the brown envelope.
My own parents, refugees from the Horn of Africa, did not have the luxury of time and resources to pursue their career aspirations, but they made up for it by providing my siblings and I with a strong appreciation for the equalizing power of education.
Unfortunately, some of the children I grew up with did not have the same good fortune. Living in social housing, they battled poverty, environments riddled with substance abuse, and an absence of supportive adult figures. It is therefore not difficult to imagine these challenges were insurmountable for some.
As a community youth worker, I work with young people who face similar challenges. The youth in my program are bright and capable; however, without adequate resources and supportive adults, they become trapped in a cycle of poverty.
When I speak to these youth about goal setting and share my story, they are often incredulous that someone who was raised in similar socio-economic circumstances could go on to study law. After some convincing on my end, which often involves producing my student card as proof, they are awestruck, as if I just announced I am a celebrity. In these communities, professionals are as rare as celebrities.
I am always heartened that after sharing my story, there are so many young people who want to become lawyers too. I have no doubt that the continued success of the legal profession will rest on the shoulders of these intelligent, articulate, but often overlooked young minds. While I know the road to get there will be a hard one — I have walked it — with enough support and mentorship they will be able to jump through the hoops of fire that lie ahead of them.
The face of the legal profession is changing. Being a first-generation professional is a challenging and sometimes alienating experience but, as under-represented minority and socio-economic groups burgeon in law school classrooms, so too do the opportunities to develop networks and mentorship for young people like the ones I work with. Our presence in these spaces is critical to breaking the cycles of poverty in these communities and encouraging at-risk youth to realize their dreams.
So, one year ago, as I weighed my acceptance letter to law school in my hands, I knew that it represented more than just my own dreams. It represented opportunity for every member of my community. I knew that as excited as I was for the challenge and for accomplishing my goals, the symbolic opportunity was greater.
As I progress in my legal career, I will remain steadfast in building networks for other young people who do not have all the requisite resources for success readily available to them. Perhaps chance for them will come in the form of a brown envelope too.
Faiza Ahmed-Hassan is entering her second year as a law student at the University of Ottawa.