Looking Beyond Labels: UK Grad’s Pursuit of Social Justice
LEXINGTON, Ky. (May 11, 2021) — Words matter — we’ve heard this time and time again. As human beings, we use words to create labels — it’s our way of understanding people and things.
We often apply labels to those we barely know, and the same is done to us. For good or bad, these assumptions influence our identity.
Just ask Hoda Shalash — she is no stranger to labels.
“I’m a first-generation Palestinian-American Muslim woman,” she said. “Growing up as a minority kid in a majority white city and country, I very quickly learned the importance of community and the power that lies within it.”
At a young age, Shalash discovered a need for advocacy of marginalized communities. Refusing to stand idly by, she went to work in her hometown of Lexington. “I quickly integrated myself within various networks around town, which helped affirm my passion of social work.”
When it came time to make an important decision — where to pursue her passion and purpose — Shalash knew she wanted to follow in her family’s footsteps.
“My older sister and cousins are social workers,” she said. “As Muslim women in Kentucky, we have recognized the need for minority leaders — something that we never really had the opportunity to have or see.”
In the fall of 2017, Shalash joined the ranks of powerful women in her family to pursue a degree in the College of Social Work (CoSW) at the University of Kentucky.
“Social work reaffirms my passion of service to others and of community work, leadership and engagement,” she explained. “The college has been such a great support system to all of its students and has made my experience incredibly impactful.”
Similar to labels, experiences also have a way of defining us, and not all impactful experiences are positive.
For Shalash, there’s one incident in particular that stands out. “I was yelled at in a grocery store,” she recalled. “A woman repeatedly yelled at me to go back to my country. After telling her, ‘this is indeed my country,’ she responded, ‘well then, take that thing off your head.’”
To this day, Shalash never underestimates the power of a moment.
Despite that traumatic experience, she wakes up each morning and chooses to wear her hijab with pride. It serves not only as a reminder but as motivation.
“It reminds me of who I am and who I represent.”
Shalash also recognizes she is not alone on this journey to social justice, and her UK family, including the Muslim Student Association, has become a valuable source of strength.
“The support for marginalized students and community members continues to be outstanding,” she said. “Recognition is important, and with that, both the university and the college have done a great job recognizing the injustices that have taken place around the country during these tumultuous times.”
This week, UK graduates are busy preparing to walk across the Rupp Arena stage and accept their long-awaited diploma. That piece of paper signifies the end of a journey — a journey of self-discovery.
Shalash’s journey to Commencement has been filled with overwhelming challenges and inspirational successes. But equipped with a degree and determination, Shalash plans to do what social workers do best — protect the vulnerable.
“I truly believe that change begins at the micro level. After continuing on to pursue a master’s in social work, I would like to work within an inner city providing mental health resources and support to marginalized communities,” she continued. “At the macro level, I would love to open up a nonprofit one day to support these minority communities and serve as a minority social work leader. Additionally, as a long-term goal, I want to run for public office at a local level and make change within public policy.”
No matter what her future holds, Shalash is proud to call herself a UK graduate. And when it comes to pushing boundaries and pursuing goals, she’s encouraging others to look beyond labels.
“Go outside of your comfort zone, be ambitious and don’t let your identity hold you back from anything you want to accomplish.”
As the state’s flagship, land-grant institution, the University of Kentucky exists to advance the Commonwealth. We do that by preparing the next generation of leaders — placing students at the heart of everything we do — and transforming the lives of Kentuckians through education, research and creative work, service and health care. We pride ourselves on being a catalyst for breakthroughs and a force for healing, a place where ingenuity unfolds. It's all made possible by our people — visionaries, disruptors and pioneers — who make up 200 academic programs, a $501 million research and development enterprise and a world-class medical center, all on one campus.
In 2022, UK was ranked by Forbes as one of the “Best Employers for New Grads” and named a “Diversity Champion” by INSIGHT into Diversity, a testament to our commitment to advance Kentucky and create a community of belonging for everyone. While our mission looks different in many ways than it did in 1865, the vision of service to our Commonwealth and the world remains the same. We are the University for Kentucky.