Katie Sims / Sun Staff Photographer

Ahmed Ahmed '17 was chosen as a 2017 Rhodes Scholar.

November 22, 2016

STUDENT STORIES | Rhodes Scholar Recipient Cites Upbringing, Family Support as Motivation to Give Back

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Throughout his senior year at John Marshall Senior High School in Rochester, Minnesota, Ahmed Ahmed ’17 would meet Mr. Johnson in his classroom at 5:30 a.m. for some last minute cramming before his calculus exam later in the day.

“If [Mr. Johnson] doesn’t inspire you to work really hard, then it’s difficult to gain inspiration beyond that,” Ahmed said. “Those exams were killer.”

After being named a Rhodes Scholar-elect in Chicago on Saturday, Ahmed credits Mr. Johnson as one of many teachers, professors, counselors, friends and family members who have helped him along his path to achievement.

Ahmed is a first generation Somali immigrant who was born in a Kenyan refugee camp. He was one of eight children raised by a single mother in the ghettos of Riverdale, Maryland. As a child, he said he never could have predicted that one day he would be a Rhodes Scholar.

“Life was hard,” said Ahmed. “We were growing up in a poor neighborhood. There was a lot of drugs and a lot of crime, but my family supported me through all of it.”

Ahmed said his mother and siblings did everything they could to enable him to live a good life. This dedication was one factor inspiring Ahmed to pursue the Rhodes Scholarship, as well as to advance his ambitions to change the world.

“When I see that kind of effort being put in to help me be successful, absolutely I have to give back,” he said.

Ahmed said he has been working to give back, both with academics, through his research, and with community service, since he arrived at Cornell.

Although he is a biology major, Ahmed conducts research in organic and polymer chemistry. He said his goal is to “combine synthetic organic chemistry with my knowledge of biology, to help solve biological diseases.”

Outside the classroom, Ahmed works with Scholars Working Ambitiously to Graduate, where he is a mentor for disadvantaged African American students in the community. He also does service work with Habitat for Humanity, where he helps build homes for those who don’t have one.

Ahmed said he hopes that the Rhodes Scholarship — which will fully fund his pursuit of  a master’s degree in research in organic and medical chemistry at Oxford University — will allow him to give back at a higher level, by merging his research and community service.

“My closest goal right now is getting out to Oxford and meeting these other scholars, and incorporating their perspectives into a future practice,” he said.

Ahmed said he is particularly concerned with the disparity in the distribution of medicine between black and white patients.

He said he hopes that by being exposed to so many different people at Oxford, he will be able to start a practice where “all people feel like they’re getting the same targeted, personalized treatment that they deserve.”

However, Ahmed said he had aspirations that stretch far beyond the world of medicine.

“I want to stand up for those who don’t have a voice, and really be that advocate for all people, not just someone who looks like you or acts like you … but someone different from you,” he said.

“And hopefully along the way,” he said, “I’ll spark someone so they can pursue their dreams too.”