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‘Follow your instincts’

October 19, 2018

A Rhodes Scholar's advice for those in the college search

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Ilhan Dahir

Ilhan Dahir is Ohio State's sixth Rhodes Scholar.

Ilhan Dahir ’15 has traveled the world in pursuit of her studies and in service to others.

As a Rhodes Scholar, she recently earned master’s degrees in refugee and forced migration and global governance and diplomacy from the University of Oxford. The year before, she taught English as a Fulbright student.

While she was an honors student at Ohio State, majoring in English and political science, she interned at the Canadian Parliament and found time to help impoverished girls in Mogadishu get to school and learn English.

But she also remembers a time not long ago when she was a teenager from Hilliard, Ohio, making a very common but important decision: Where should she go to college?

As someone who has been on the world’s biggest academic stage — and as the oldest sister in her own family — Dahir has some valuable words of wisdom. Here’s her advice for those starting their own college journey.

How should high school students think about preparing for college?

When I think back to my time as a junior and senior in high school I remember two things at once: the joy of finishing a chapter of my life with my friends and in my community and the intense stress that existed just below all those experiences.

I remember that time in my life fondly now, but I also recall just how easy it was to feel overwhelmed by the possibilities for the future and all the choices I was called to make. If I could speak to myself at that time, I would say that although there are decisions to be made, stress and anxiety are not tools for success.

However, finding a way to manage stress is an important tool. It was only after I learned that proactive planning and self-care practices weren’t indulgent but necessary for my well-being and my success, that I began to implement them.

Ilhan Dahir Ilhan Dahir says the quality of Ohio State's political science department and unrivaled student involvement opportunities were key factors in her college choice.

What should you do if you’re not sure what to study?

The popular saying “We plan, God laughs” is one that comes to mind for me whenever I am asked about how to approach long-term decision making.

To me, the best piece of advice I can think to offer is that what we choose to study is not separate from who we are; follow your instincts and pay attention to what you gravitate toward in your free time and find ways to tie that into your studies.

You were admitted to other universities as well. What made you choose Ohio State in the end?

Choosing between universities can be a very stressful experience since it is easy to overthink the process.

Questions — such as “How do I know if I’m making the right decision? Will I regret my decision? Should I stay close to home or go far away? Am I better suited for a small liberal arts educational experience or should I be angling towards attending a large research institution?” — open up avenues of a thousand more questions, dealing with everything from finances to social considerations.

Soon, the process is overwhelming and, at least in my case, totally exhausting. By that point in the process, early in my senior year of high school, my guidance counselor advised me to make a short list of absolute “musts” in my college application process.

After a while, The Ohio State University’s competitive political science department, unparalleled student involvement opportunities, placement in Columbus and being offered the Morrill Scholarship for fully funded study all contributed to making my decision feel easy. Suddenly, I couldn’t imagine a better choice for myself.

If you could go back and change anything about preparing for college or your Ohio State experience, what would it be?

Although I loved my experience at Ohio State, if I could approach the experience differently, I would have allowed myself to explore even more of the opportunities offered on campus. Instead of looking at my commitments as all or nothing — either being a part of the organization or not participating at all — I would have made a more concerted effort to just attend events and get an even bigger picture of what a rich and wonderfully diverse place The Ohio State University is.

Ilhan Dahir talks to fellow students at Oxford

If you were going to tell an incoming freshman (#new2osu) three things not to miss at Ohio State during their time there, what would they be?

There were definitely aspects of Ohio State that were unmissable for me. I would say there are three things to keep in mind:

  1. Bring your existing passions to Ohio State with you. Whether you are a debater, talented musician, aspiring polyglot, soccer star or any number of other things in high school — bring those interests and talents with you to Ohio State and find a space to grow them.
  2. Don’t underestimate how much learning there is to do outside of the classroom. Go to departmental talks, documentary screenings, art exhibits in the Wexner Center, poetry readings — the options are endless, seek them out!
  3. Explore Columbus! The Ohio State University is located in the heart of Ohio’s capital city; don’t close yourself off to the opportunities and culture that await you there.

How did Ohio State help you prepare for one of academia’s biggest stages — being a Rhodes Scholar at the University of Oxford?

Throughout my two years at the University of Oxford, I felt myself calling upon the knowledge and experiences I acquired at The Ohio State University. It was the seminars in Derby and Denney halls that sharpened my mind, the poetry readings in Hale Hall that readied my words, the seemingly endless list of incredible guest lectures that fine-tuned my listening.

These strengths, forged on campus and cultivated by my favorite professors, carried me across the Atlantic and sustained me at one of the world’s great academic institutions. And on any given day, made unremarkable by a steady stream of mist-like rain falling on ageless stone, I felt at home at Oxford because of my home in Ohio.