Recent grad Sarr found life-changing community, mentorship at UM-Flint

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A young woman smiles at the camera, with desks and windows behind her
Alimatou Sarr is looking forward to working on migrant and refugee rights in the future after graduating from UM-Flint this April.

While watching news reports about the Syrian refugee crisis, Alimatou Sarr decided she wanted to pursue a career helping similarly displaced persons and migrants rebuild their lives in new communities.

"I've always been interested in history and politics, and international relations in particular, and seeing these stories of families displaced by war only deepened my desire to learn more about how I can help," said the April 2024 University of Michigan-Flint political science graduate and Maize & Blue Scholar. "I knew that I wanted to study political science and international affairs, possibly to become a diplomat, and as part of my early enrollment program with UM-Flint, I began taking political science classes while still in high school in Swartz Creek. So I had the opportunity to meet many of the faculty and learn more about what the university had to offer."

Sarr began her college studies during the COVID-19 pandemic, so, like students worldwide, her learning was limited to a virtual classroom. To enrich her experience, she turned to UM-Flint's Honors program.

"The Honors program includes students from all across the university, so I met people studying various disciplines," Sarr said. "Over the years, we've built relationships and learned from each other, and it helped me feel more connected to the campus community."

Sarr worked as a research assistant for the Undergraduate Research Opportunity Program for the past two years, collaborating with Emily Feuerherm, an associate professor of linguistics, to study migrant health literacy, specifically how migrants and refugees access and understand health care in their new countries.

"I was also a research assistant for TurnUp, a nonpartisan organization focused on youth voter advocacy, education and registration," Sarr said. "It was originally through the Ann Arbor campus, but I spearheaded bringing a chapter to UM-Flint and promoting it on other campuses."

And it is her work with TurnUp that Sarr is particularly proud of.

Alimatou Sarr and Myron Henderson standing behind a table encouraging people to vote.
Sarr and Myron Henderson, a Master of Public Administration graduate student, during a student voter registration drive on National Voter Registration Day in 2022.

"Flint's TurnUp presence began as a few folks trying to get students registered and hosting events to learn about topics on campus," she said. "But we ramped up for the 2022 midterms and have done a lot in preparation for the upcoming 2024 election. There seems to be a belief among younger voters that their votes don't count, and we're determined to change that. Voter registration among Gen Z has increased during the past few years, and our organization is part of changing that tide. We're even going to local high schools to provide information, education and registration resources to anyone old enough to vote in November."

In addition to her work as a research assistant and her focus on voter registration, Sarr was the president of the International Student Organization (2022-24) and worked with the Center for Global Engagement, facilitating cross-cultural events across campus.

"I helped bring back the Intercultural Fair after the pandemic because I wanted to help showcase the cultural diversity that we have within our country and our campus community," said Sarr. "I think the recognition that I received as a Maize & Blue Scholar is rooted in my desire to build sustainable and collaborative communities amongst undergraduate students at UM-Flint, so I was really honored to receive it."

Sarr plans to take some time off to decide the next step along her academic or career path. Still, even a "gap year" for Sarr begins with an extraordinary accomplishment: She's one of two Critical Language Scholars at UM-Flint, recently recognized by the U.S. Department of State. She also plans to explore volunteer opportunities and hopes to travel a bit.

And after that? 

"I'm considering graduate school, studying public policy or international affairs," she said. "When I was young, I wanted to be a diplomat, but now I'm more interested in working in a non-governmental organization, possibly as a senior researcher, which is a result of my experience at UM-Flint. My professors encouraged me to take chances and explore, and it opened my eyes to career paths I hadn't considered before.

"I don't know if I would have even applied for something like the Critical Language Scholars program without the mentorship of faculty like Dr. Birchok – it just seemed too far-fetched. But I went for it, and that's the biggest advice I can give any UM-Flint student: Take risks. Try new things. Take this time to challenge yourself and explore things you didn't know about before. Who knows where it will take you? Take these opportunities to learn to stand in your own power and truth."

Kat Oak is the communications specialist for the College of Arts, Sciences, and Education. She can be reached via email at [email protected].