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Rawan Saleh

Senior
Public Health major


Everyone has the power to make change in the world.

That’s Rawan Saleh’s message as the senior public health major shares her anti-racism sentiment freely with others – “the more the better,” she says – and works to bring social justice to realms where people are judged more by their appearance than their human worth.

And, if you’ve heard that April is Arab American Heritage Month, you might thank her for that too.

Last year the immigrant from Jordan decided to give it a shot and write to Kentucky’s governor to have the state recognize the month as the Arab America Foundation does nationally.

Later, to her surprise, at her UofL residence hall, “there was a big package on my door – from (Gov.) Andy Beshear to me,” she said. “I opened it and it was an actual proclamation.”

The proclamation, which notes Arab Americans’ many contributions to American society and their struggles against harmful stereotyping and civil rights abuses, is a small step on the path to building awareness, according to Saleh. It’s just one example of ways people can alter their perception of others who might seem different at first.

As a sixth grader, she and her family moved from her native country to Louisville, primarily for the pursuit of quality education, she said. She initially attended the city’s Newcomer Academy, geared to students for whom English is a second language. By the next year, she had progressed to Fern Creek High School, where people still invite her back to talk to students about her experiences.

As a non-native speaker, reading comprehension takes her longer, she said, and that part stymied her on the tests that determine college eligibility. Undeterred, even after taking the ACT several times, she persuaded admissions officials to take a chance on her, pledging that they wouldn’t be disappointed.

Shortly after becoming a Cardinal, Saleh became a tutor to others through the REACH (Resources for Academic Achievement) office that provides support for undergraduate students. She continues there as a structured learning assistant, particularly in biology.

Her public health studies align with her broader interests. “There is a lot of social justice in public health….How can we make everything equitable?” she said.

“When there’s an opportunity to speak, I will not hesitate, and I will always stand in the line to do that,” Saleh said. Her talks about diversity and inclusion range from Islamaphobia to stereotyping in general.

On Instagram, she promotes her views to 17,000 followers. Beyond her personal page, she offers another page where she helps people who speak Arabic as a first language to grasp conversational English. About 10,000 people follow her there.

She even produced a children’s book about health activism for minorities during the COVID-19 pandemic. Saleh did the graphics and wrote “From Lina to the World: Inspired by True Events” as a project with her younger sisters.

Saleh’s reflections made their way into some educational lesson plans when she was among young people featured in the 2018 New York Times Generation Z competition. Her comments, featured online and in print, have been used by teachers and students for their own exploration of anti-racism issues.

This April, as she turns 21, Saleh will continue to bring what she calls “an authentic voice” to discussions about what is just and to encourage others to do likewise. Her advice to them?

“I would say just to realize that even as one person, you do have everything you need to make change,” she said.

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