As a child, he looked to Obama for proof he could be president. Now he's the U's first Somali American student-body president
Abdulaziz Mohamed sometimes felt lost growing up between between two worlds. He found his voice in student government.
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On a Sunday in October, shortly before the 2008 presidential election, a young Abdulaziz Mohamed sat on a couch with his father watching “Meet the Press.” On the program, Colin Powell, the retired general who had served as secretary of state under former President George W. Bush, announced his endorsement of then-candidate Barack Obama for president.
In his interview with Tom Brokaw, Powell cited growing Islamophobia within the Republican party as part of the reason for his endorsement. It had become acceptable, he noted, to describe Obama — incorrectly — as a Muslim, in order to discredit his candidacy.
“Well, the correct answer is, he is not a Muslim, he’s a Christian,” Powell said. “But the really right answer is, what if he is? Is there something wrong with being a Muslim in this country? The answer’s no, that’s not America. Is there something wrong with some 7-year-old Muslim American kid believing that he or she could be president?”
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On the couch in their Woodbury apartment, Abdulaziz turned to his father. He had just turned eight.
“My heart was gleaming,” Abdulaziz recalled. “I asked my dad, ‘Can I be president one day?’ He said, ‘Yeah, if you work for it, sure you can.’”
Now 20, Abdulaziz isn’t yet old enough to be eligible for the presidency of the United States. But he’s already been elected president twice: first, as student body co-president of Stillwater Area High School. And on July 1, he took office as the first Somali American student body president of the University of Minnesota.
He hopes to use his experiences growing up as Black and Muslim in the predominantly white Stillwater area to better serve all students — especially those who often get left behind.
Becoming a pioneer for racial representation as a young Black man in Stillwater didn’t happen without friction. The scenic river town of 19,000 is 91 percent white; earlier this year it made headlines when an off-duty prison sergeant hurled expletives at Black political protesters, while his wife used a racial slur. Abdulaziz’s leadership skills and drive to speak for underrepresented students, apparent at an early age, sparked backlash among some white parents.
Yet in interviews, the rising college junior describes his journey with the poise and message discipline of a practiced politician. He emphasizes his accomplishments while painting obstacles as growth opportunities.
Interviews with his friends and mentors provide a fuller picture — though they, too, appear careful to maintain his professional image. I asked Nikhil Kumaran, his best friend since childhood and his current roommate in a rented Dinkytown house, for stories about Abdulaziz in high school. Kumaran laughed and said he didn’t want to get in trouble with his friend.
Abdulaziz enjoys Hot Cheetos and listening to Beyoncé, Kumaran offered. He takes annoyingly long showers. And he’s not especially skilled at some video games.
“He’s god-awful at FIFA,” he said. “I don’t care if that one gets out.”
But his professionalism, drive and poise have propelled Abdulaziz to a historic student presidency. He’s the second Black student-body president of the University of Minnesota (after Jael Kerandi in 2020). He’s the first Somali student to win. And he and his vice president, Samiat Ajibola, are the first Black pair to head the Minnesota Student Association (MSA).
They’ll be leading the student body as people return to campus after a traumatic year, defined by the pandemic and a national racial reckoning centered in Minneapolis. The two plan to prioritize meeting basic needs, especially for the most marginalized students: food, housing and mental health, as well as campus safety.
It’s easy to forget that Abdulaziz is also a regular student, Ajibola said.
“Abdul portrays himself as the most professional person in the world, and he probably is,” she said. “When I first met him in person I was like, this dude looks like Barack Obama. He walks like Barack Obama. But once I had a conversation with him, despite his suits, really firm handshake and intense eye contact, he’s the sweetest guy I’ve ever met, and he truly wants the best for everyone.”
A playground politician
Abdulaziz grew up in Woodbury, attending Stillwater Area Public Schools, where his graduating class was 85 percent white. At the same time, he attended mosque and Islamic Sunday school in Minneapolis’ Somali community.
Abdulaziz didn’t look like the other kids in Stillwater, who struggled to pronounce his name. But he always had friends of other races.
Andy Fields first got to know Abdulaziz as a kid on the playground of Lake Elmo Elementary School, where he was principal. From the age of 9 or 10, Abdulaziz mediated recess disputes, he recalled.
“Abdul is always the kid that came forward to say, ‘Mr. Fields, we’ve got this under control, we’ve got it figured out, we’re fine, we’re good to go back playing,’” Fields said. “And I think the students accepted him in that role.”
His father, Muhiyaden Farrah, remembers that as soon as Abdulaziz could talk, he started telling his older brother what to do. When Abdulaziz was 11 or 12, Muhiyaden brought him to his workplace — the Social Security Administration in Minneapolis — for Take Your Child to Work Day.
“One of my colleagues came to me and said, ‘Oh my goodness, your son is outspoken, I wish he’d become an attorney,’” Muhiyaden said.
As a Black student in a fairly homogeneous community, he faced occasional racist remarks, “weird looks” and bullying in school, Abdulaziz recalled. But in the Muslim community in Minneapolis, his peers made fun of his broken Somali. “In many ways, I was straddling two different worlds, where admission to one was rejecting the other,” he said.
By the time Abdulaziz was in middle school, being different didn’t feel so easy.
“I tried so often to mask my Blackness, to mask my differences,” he said in his 2019 graduation speech from Stillwater Area High School. “It left me stuck in isolation, alone in an identity that was unrecognized. By trying to be like everyone else, I was becoming more and more alone, spiraling into frustration and acting out whenever I could.”
That behavior included poor academic performance and a few trips to the principal’s office, Abdulaziz said.
But a kind teacher in the AVID program, which helps kids who need extra support preparing for college, noticed he was struggling and wrote him an encouraging letter. The note helped him see that his identity, straddling different worlds, could become one of his greatest strengths. Abdulaziz credits this message with boosting his confidence — he still keeps the note.
“I really was able to start to understand where — and this is still a process — where I can be useful, and how I can be able to help people who have also struggled early in life,” Abdulaziz said.
Fields, who had by then become principal of Oak-Land Middle School, noticed the child mediator he’d first met on the playground now finding his voice.
“As an 8th grader in particular, I started seeing him really start to ask questions, why certain things occurred in our school, and trying to find solutions to make learning better for all kids,” he said.
Abdulaziz returned to this theme in his 2019 graduation speech with the earnest idealism of a teenager ready to make his mark.
“We must find that feeling of isolation and turn it into power,” he told his graduating classmates, “because we have the power to overcome the world.”
‘I was able to fully grow into myself’
At Stillwater Area High School, Abdulaziz played soccer and violin. But he found his niche in student government. He ran for student body co-president with his friend Nikhil Kumaran, whose parents immigrated from Sri Lanka and the Bahamas.
As a teenager, Abdulaziz perceived that other people expected him to be one thing or another: a Minneapolis Muslim or a typical kid in the exurbs. Student government became a kind of third way, “a place where I was able to fully grow into myself and who I wanted to be in the future,” he said.
He and Kumaran, both young Black men, became the first students of color to serve as Stillwater Area High School student body co-presidents (a joint post traditionally shared in Stillwater).
Previous student councils had focused on planning events like dances and pep rallies. While Abdulaziz said he enjoyed those activities, too, he saw an opportunity to increase the student voice at the school board and state legislature.
As a high school senior in 2019, he traveled to the state Capitol to meet for the first time with legislators, asking for more public school funding. But his most active role in local government came through the school board.
Student body presidents traditionally held a nonvoting seat on the Stillwater school board. The student representatives might provide updates from the high school on music, sports or homecoming celebrations, Fields said. Abdulaziz and Kumaran took a different approach.
“Abdul always dug far deeper in his role,” Fields said.
Abdulaziz asked questions about board topics and agenda items, looking beyond the high school to issues that affected the whole community. He became a vocal advocate for the expansion of overcrowded Brookview Elementary, one of the district’s most diverse schools.
Abdulaziz used his platform to inform the public about the benefits of expanding the school — and the consequences of not doing so. “I remember he was so composed in his questions and making sure that our community understood exactly what our board was deciding on,” Fields said.
For Abdulaziz, advocating for the school expansion felt like a simple decision. “I always think you have to do your best to represent marginalized, underrepresented people, especially students,” he said.
But his unusually active role on the school board prompted pushback from some parents. In a Facebook group, adults questioned why the teenage representatives were speaking out. One Facebook post claimed the two co-presidents had verbally “attacked” a school board member, prompting an emotional response from Kumaran’s mother at the duo’s final school board meeting.
The families of both teenagers, who lived in neighboring Woodbury, feared repercussions from the predominantly white community in Stillwater.
“Whenever you use the word ‘attacked’ and it’s a Black man against a white woman, it doesn’t go well at all,” Kumaran said. “I was scared to go in Stillwater because it just wasn’t safe.”
“My parents were afraid, especially,” Abdulaziz said. “That rubbed off on me. When you have opinions that challenge certain norms, they can be weaponized almost.”
The school board didn’t expand Brookview Elementary that year. But earlier this spring, it voted to add eight additional classrooms to the building, at a cost of up to $7.2 million.
It’s difficult to draw a causal relationship between that expansion and Abdulaziz’s advocacy from two years ago, Fields said. But he was an early champion for the cause.
“I’ve been a leader in a building where we’ve had an Olympic gold medalist, where we’ve had a student drafted in the NBA recently,” Fields said. “I don’t think I’ve ever been more proud of a student in my career than Abdul and his leadership.”
‘He brings people together’
Abdulaziz had heard about the Minnesota Student Association — the undergraduate student government of the University of Minnesota — from a previous Stillwater student-body president. The Minnesota Student Association, which consists of elected student senators and representatives from student organizations, controls a $200,000 budget.
The organization also acts as the voice of the school’s 35,000 undergraduates to influence university policy and advocate for students at the federal, state and local levels. Its reputation drew Abdulaziz to attend the university.
“I knew that was a space I could not only be a part of but thrive in,” he said.
As the Minnesota Student Association’s lobbyist at the state Capitol, Sam Parmekar helped pick Abdulaziz for a fellowship program. Abdulaziz came along with Parmekar, then, to a meeting with state Sen. Karin Housley (R–Stillwater) to discuss a bill to provide medical amnesty for sexual assault survivors. Abdulaziz had first met Housley his senior year of high school, through his work on the Stillwater student council.
He made a persuasive case for the bill, which would allow victims reporting a sexual assault to receive legal immunity for underage drinking or drug use that may have occurred at the time of the assault.
The bill had earned broad support in the House, but struggled to obtain bipartisan support in the Senate, Parmekar said. Then, after Abdulaziz met with Housley, she signed on in February 2020 as its first Republican Senate author.
“That was a really big deal for that piece of legislation,” Parmekar said. “It also struck me how prepared he was. It seems like he just has an instinct for a lot of these things.”
The bill didn’t pass in 2020: Many legislative priorities stalled when COVID-19 shut down the state that March. But the medical amnesty protections made it into the final 2021 public safety bill passed by the legislature in June.
Kumaran hopes Abdulaziz can use those same skills to build trust with student groups on campus. “That’s kind of the person he is,” Kumaran said. “He brings people together.”
A new platform for student government: stimulus payments, food access and Black mental health
Abdulaziz spent much of his second year at the University of Minnesota in online classes, as the campus retreated from the COVID-19 pandemic. He also served as the Minnesota Student Association’s federal government and legislative affairs coordinator, advocating for student priorities in Congress. In that role, he pushed for adult dependents — including students still on their parents’ tax returns — to receive checks in the third round of stimulus payments.
And he began considering a run for student body president. That stipended position acts as the primary voice of the undergraduate student body, proposing policies to the student Senate and representing student concerns to university administration and government officials.
Samiat Ajibola, then president of the Black Student Union, first met Abdulaziz during an outreach meeting on Zoom to discuss how the Minnesota Student Association could better represent the university’s Black students.
“I basically told him everything that was wrong with MSA, and then he asked me to be his VP,” she said.
The Minnesota Student Association’s reputation has suffered in recent years, Ajibola said: Critics see it as an elitist organization, steeped in the bureaucracy of red tape and Robert’s Rules. She told Abdulaziz the organization needed to meet more frequently with student groups representing different constituencies.
The Black Student Union, for example, had noted a need for more mental health funding, including more Black counselors. While MSA might push for mental health resources, she said, it didn’t necessarily consult with the groups who needed those resources most.
Ajibola and Abdulaziz won in an uncontested race — the first time in more than a decade that candidates for student-body president and vice president had run unopposed.
The duo plans to focus on helping students with basic needs like food insecurity, housing instability and mental health. One of their goals is to establish an affordable food co-op for students; grocery options are too limited near campus, both said. They also want to increase accountability for the University of Minnesota Police Department, to “establish a more equitable campus safety infrastructure that really puts the needs of students first,” Abdulaziz said.
To make their agenda a reality, they’ve hired what they describe as the student government’s most diverse staff in recent memory.
Ajibola brings a grassroots organizing approach that complements Abdulaziz’s years of experience with student government. She knows how to fundraise and connect people directly with the resources they need. He’s skilled in navigating the levers of government to solve problems, like talking to members of Congress about SNAP benefits — food assistance that can help low-income students.
Ajibola’s casual style complements Abdulaziz’s professionalism, too.
As they’ve learned to work together, she said, “I wear sweatpants a little bit less and Abdul smiles more in the calls, so it works out.”
After graduating, Abdulaziz plans to attend law school. He’d like to represent Minnesota’s underserved communities in civil rights and religious rights cases. He’s dreamed of becoming a lawyer since he was a little kid: He dressed up as Barack Obama for Halloween in a black suit and a blue tie.
For now, though, he’s jumping into his role as student-body president, as well as a summer internship with St. Paul Mayor Melvin Carter. “I’m always focused on, and living in, the moment,” he said. “Right now my moment is helping students and advocating for students.”
If that sounds like the kind of strategic answer a politician gives when asked about a future candidacy — well, Abdulaziz concedes he would like to run for public office someday. In fact, he still wants to be president of the United States.
He still likes to wear suits, too, though he no longer needs Halloween as an excuse. And he’s growing into the role of public speaker.
Shortly after Abdulaziz won his campaign this spring, he gave a speech at a protest over the fatal police shooting of Daunte Wright.
Wright was a 20-year-old Black man, Abdulaziz told the crowd. So was he. He didn’t want to be the next one killed. But he could be.
Forty years earlier in southern California, another Black college sophomore gave his first speech.
Like Abdulaziz, he’d struggled to find his place between two worlds. And he used himself as an example to personify the social issues of the day. In a planned act of political theater, white students dragged him off stage to dramatize the repression of activists in apartheid South Africa.
From the White House press briefing room, Obama later described it as his first-ever political action.
By that standard, Abdulaziz already has a head start.