Adjusting to life as a freshman at Harvard University has its own set of pressures. Add to that a surprise phone conversation with Gov. Jared Polis. Yet, two weeks after moving from Northglenn to …
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Adjusting to life as a freshman at Harvard University has its own set of pressures. Add to that a surprise phone conversation with Gov. Jared Polis.
Yet, two weeks after moving from Northglenn to Boston, Ananda Birungi sat in her dorm room and did exactly that.
“I didn't even have that many words, I was just speechless,” Birungi said of her brief conversation with Polis.
On the other end of the line, the governor informed Birungi he was awarding her a 2020 Governor's Citizenship Medal, the highest honor in the state. Her honor, the Emerging Community Leader medal, is one of eight citizenship medals. The recipients' honor was featured in a Rocky Mountain PBS special that aired on Jan. 13.
When Polis' office initially reached out, Birungi thought it was a scam. It surprised her because she wasn't aware someone nominated her for the honor. It was also surreal, she said.
“I came from a humble background and I didn't ever feel like I would go to Harvard,” she said. Or receive the medal, she said.
Yet, the governor selected Birungi for her tireless work on issues such as educational access for young women of color during her time as a student at Thornton High School, where she graduated in May. Though Birungi still feels it's surreal to receive the governor's medal, it also makes sense upon reflecting on her accomplishments.
Birungi and her mom, dad and two brothers emigrated from Mbarara, Uganda to Northglenn in October 2016. The school year already started, making it all the more difficult for Birungi to get settled as a freshman at Thornton High.
“For the first time in my life, I actually saw myself as an outsider or different from other people,” she said. She was among the minority, not the majority anymore. She spoke with a thick accent and people kept asking her to repeat herself.
“I just kind of isolated myself, I didn't really try to get involved in school,” she said.
Meanwhile, the rest of her family were getting acclimated, financially and socially, to their new lives.
“In those days, we were like, `Why did we even move? We should have just stayed back home.' It was so rough, honestly,” Birungi said.
Back in Mbarara, Birungi had a solid group of friends and she was involved in several clubs at school. The inverse was true in Northglenn and Thornton.
Junior and senior years
Then, at the end of her freshman year, the student government put on a pep assembly. There was nothing especially wowing about the event, Birungi just found the whole experience exciting.
“It was the first time I felt like I was part of the Thornton High School community,” Birungi recalls.
So, she joined student government sophomore year, but she was still halfway in her shell. Then, at the end of sophomore year, she applied to a program with Access Opportunity, a Boulder-based nonprofit focused on education access for low-income students. Students in the Access program participate for 6 years — from junior year of high school to the end of undergraduate college — and they receive assistance during the college admission process, a scholarship and guidance while in college.
At the start of junior year, Birungi was part of two clubs. Then, she started a local chapter of Girl Up at Thornton High, which raises awareness and funds for educational opportunities for young women across the world. Birungi also became president of the French club and joined the Colorado Youth Advisory Council. She took charge of the student government's Thanksgiving food drive that year and Girl Up joined with other clubs to fundraise for a student in Guatemala to finish his high school education.
By senior year, Birungi realized she was stretched thin. She lessened her commitment in some areas and deepened it in others. She spearheaded a research project for Access that surveyed Access participants in college. From the findings, Access launched a new program that lets second-year college students who are part of Access mentor first-year college students.
Meanwhile, Birungi served as student body vice president at Thornton High.
The college question
Though it seemed she had it all figured out, the biggest question mark lingered: college.
“It is the very reason that my family decided to emigrate and face all the challenges we did,” she said.
Yet, she needed an institution to pay 100 percent of her tuition, or close to it. Lo and behold, in December 2019, Harvard sent her an acceptance letter and said it could pay almost all of her tuition.
It all sounds like a fairytale. It wasn't magic, though. Birungi remembers the pain she felt those first few years just as vividly she does the joys of junior and senior year. She's where she is today because of the initiative she took those years back. Through it all, she said the major lesson she learned was, “You just have to believe in your story, because it is more powerful than you believe.”
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