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‘Education is my heart’

Alum Raaheela Ahmed's story

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Alum Raaheela Ahmed speaking Raaheela Ahmed’s experience in Grant Thornton’s Public Sector practice helped prepare her for public service.
Meet a Grant Thornton alum who is using her experience to make a difference. Several years ago, as an 18-year-old sophomore at the University of Maryland, Raaheela Ahmed campaigned for a board of education position in her Maryland county. She knocked on more than 7,000 doors, called more than 300 citizens and visited a dozen or so community events. She won the primary election as the top vote-getter but narrowly missed victory in the general election, with 47% of the vote. She continued with her own education and upon graduation, began working in Grant Thornton’s Alexandria, Va., office as an Advisory Services associate in the Global Public Sector practice.

The rigors of campaigning for office Then at age 22, Raaheela struggled with whether to run again for school board membership. “My Grant Thornton colleagues were so supportive,” she said. “But I had faced racism, islamophobia, xenophobia and misogyny during that first race.”

In the end, she ran in the primary elections and won, beating out the 10-year incumbent. In the general election, she earned 57% of the vote (equating to over 32,000 votes), triumphing over the establishment pick, who was supported by nearly 30 elected officials at the local, state and federal levels.

Raaheela’s final year at the firm coincided with and complemented her transition to public office. “For six months while running for the board position, I worked at Grant Thornton by day and met with constituents by night,” she said. “My coworkers at the firm made a huge difference. They valued and understood me professionally and validated the work I was doing.”

Eight months after leaving the firm to wrap her hands around what serving 80,000 people and 19 schools in Prince George’s County School Board District 5 would entail, Raaheela began to understand the need for diversity in places of influence. She took a job at New American Leaders, a national nonpartisan nonprofit, to manage their leadership program for elected officials. The organization prepares first- and second-generation immigrant Americans to use their power and potential in elected office. She then moved into administrative leadership at Campus Vote Project, an organization committed to institutionalizing voting at college campuses across the United States.

The cost of public service Hard as it was, running for and winning the position turned out to be the easy part, Raaheela said: “This type of work beats you down. Everyone works so hard in an environment where survival — not education — is the number one problem, with burdens including gun violence, mental health, dysfunctional home environments, social media and technology.

Class room School board member Raaheela with a 5th-grade class and The Youngest Marcher
“Prince George’s is a majority minority county, with tens of thousands of English language learners. Latino students aren’t showing up at school; they and school district employees fear dealing with the repercussions of national policies. You don’t run for office thinking that partisan politics are going to affect nonpartisan issues in the way they have.

“I could never have imagined the last two to two-and-a-half years. I wanted to focus on academics and building opportunities for kids to learn trades and succeed in sciences. I never thought we’d be backtracking and addressing social issues or that with a budget of just over $2 billion for 132,000 students, I’d be advocating for school psychologists and social workers more than any other action item.

“Not a day goes by that I don’t hear from someone pouring out their heart about how the school system has treated them unjustly. I try to answer every email, but unfortunately, I haven’t found the balance in understanding issues and concerns, and advocating for them without losing my sense of self. The horrific experiences of parents, children and educators are overwhelming.”

Overcoming ageism When asked how being 26 impacts her influence on the board, Raaheela explained that her previous work as a student representative on the University of Maryland board and overseeing 12 public schools and 130,000 students, along with her degrees in finance and economics, give her confidence in her ability to impact and add value.

But that doesn’t mean it’s been an easy road. After a particularly disturbing discovery in their school district regarding fraudulent graduation rates, she and the other young board members who were being ignored took their concerns to the governor. Though they were vilified by many for the negative attention they brought to the district, their Washington Post headline-making persistence brought change.

Another surprising change is that between her first run in 2012 and now, board makeup has gone from two to six of the 14 members being under age 30.

Education, Raaheela said, is her “driving force.” Fighting for education’s future These days, Raaheela is feeling the weight of her passion and is unsure how long she will remain in public service. But make no mistake — it’s more a reevaluation of where she can add value than a backing down.

Always, her focus is on education.

“Education is my heart,” Raaheela said. “It will be my driving force no matter where I go, understanding the system and what it means for kids to succeed, and how it applies to cultural and family values. The virus in education, the fact that it’s more about business, focusing on metrics and goals and proving ‘something’ — versus actually educating — is a huge challenge. But we’re responsible for the future of these kids. We can’t sit by and do nothing.”