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.”
“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.”
The University of Kentucky is increasingly the first choice for students, faculty and staff to pursue their passions and their professional goals. In the last two years, Forbes has named UK among the best employers for diversity, and INSIGHT into Diversity recognized us as a Diversity Champion four years running. UK is ranked among the top 30 campuses in the nation for LGBTQ* inclusion and safety. UK has been judged a “Great College to Work for" three years in a row, and UK is among only 22 universities in the country on Forbes' list of "America's Best Employers." We are ranked among the top 10 percent of public institutions for research expenditures — a tangible symbol of our breadth and depth as a university focused on discovery that changes lives and communities. And our patients know and appreciate the fact that UK HealthCare has been named the state’s top hospital for five straight years. Accolades and honors are great. But they are more important for what they represent: the idea that creating a community of belonging and commitment to excellence is how we honor our mission to be not simply the University of Kentucky, but the University for Kentucky.