By Lina Heil
Sarah Taha, an Iraqi immigrant and honors student at San Diego Mesa College, was named one of the top community college students in America in April. It has been a remarkable journey for Taha, who 10 years ago as a 16-year-old in Iraq had already witnessed war and experienced the fear of bombing, kidnappings and death.
Taha, now 26 and a resident of La Mesa, is one of only 20 students to receive the All-USA Community College Academic Team honor, which comes with a $5,000 scholarship. The awards were presented by the Phi Theta Kappa Honor Society in San Antonio, Texas, on April 20.
Taha was a high school senior in November 2006 when her father was shot and killed by terrorists in retribution for allowing her two brothers to work as interpreters for U.S. forces. Her family was displaced; her education came to a halt. She went into a deep depression. Eventually, the family found their way to America through a special immigration visa, and Sarah found her way to Mesa College.
“The community college experience can best be described as my ship to salvation,” Taha wrote in her application for the honor. “It was my first glimpse of hope and my first step towards my next life. I used to view education in the United States as unattainable, but I would eventually get it. I overcame the death of my father and war in Iraq. Once I’ve done that, I can do anything.”
The Phi Theta Kappa awards program — considered one of the most prestigious in the country — recognizes two-year college students from across the U.S. who display an outstanding combination of academic achievement and community service. A panel of judges selected the 20 honorees from a pool of more than 1,700 students nominated by more than 1,000 community colleges.
“Sarah is a perfect example of the power of resilience and humility,” Mesa College President Pamela Luster said. “She is a model of Mesa College students who succeed despite adversity and who challenge themselves to excel.”
Taha was recently named to Phi Theta Kappa’s All-California Team, where she earned the 2014 New Century Scholar award. She also won Phi Theta Kappa’s Guistwhite Scholarship and the Mesa College President’s Academic Excellence and Service Award.
Taha graduates this May as a valedictorian, with a perfect GPA of 4.0. She plans to pursue a bachelor’s degree in business administration, with hopes to achieve her doctorate in accounting and help those who are in the situation she was able to escape. She wants to become social entrepreneur and already has ideas for an international enterprise that imports tea grown in Iraq and other Persian Gulf countries to help bolster those communities. Locally, she has volunteered to raise money and awareness of the hungry and shelter-deprived.
This is the second year in a row a Mesa College student was named the top community college student in California. Sarah Farmer, a psychology major at UCLA, was California’s 2014 New Century Scholar.
— Lina Heil is an information officer for San Diego Mesa College. Write to her at LHeil@sdccd.edu.