By Stephanie Harp
When Amran Osman was growing up in Lewiston, she was quiet. “Originally, I was an introvert and I didn’t speak about things,” she said. “I just kept to myself.” But that was before she arrived at the University of Southern Maine.
She’d begun her higher education at Central Maine Community College, studying to be a nurse. “My whole thing was that I wanted to help people,” said Osman. In high school, she’d been a member of Key Club. Gradually, to help herself talk more, she joined the speech team. But she still didn’t feel like she was good at talking. “At that time, I wanted to go into nursing. So I became a CNA.” As a Certified Nursing Assistant, she helped people get out of bed and ready for their morning, then helped them get ready to go to bed at night. “It was fun and I got to work with different residents. I grew to really love them and get to know them. So leaving the job was sad.” But she had discovered that she didn’t like the sight of blood. “I’m glad I realized it soon enough!” She also realized that nursing wasn’t the only way she could help people.
“Coming into USM, I didn’t know exactly what I wanted to do,” she said. In most of her classes, she was the only person of color. She joined different groups, but wanted to do more to help all students feel included, so she founded the African Student Union. “Just being able to gradually be a part of different groups or different clubs to get the experience of college, and be able to help my peers with different problems they have” met her desire to help. She found that she liked being able to network and to contribute to change at USM.
One of her friends was in the Student Senate. “So I asked them, ‘What do you guys do there?’ ” Over the years, the Student Senate has evolved to reflect the diversity of the campus, she said. “Now student government is the most diverse it’s been,” as are the student body president, vice president, and student government association, as a whole. “It’s kind of surprising. Everyone who is a person of color can look at student government and say, ‘Wow, there’s at least one person who looks like me.’ ”
Osman began to wonder, “What if I can push for a change really quickly?” She decided to major in political science on the international studies track. With a new focus on politics as a way to make a difference, she realized, “I want to go into politics, and I can’t do that if I keep quiet.” She joined the Model United Nations Organization and is currently a student senator and chair of the Student Senate’s Racial Equity Committee. This year, she’s also the director of racial equity and inclusion under the student body President’s Cabinet, a new position. “I think, this year, our president thought that it was important, with all that’s happening in the community and in the world, that we have this position.” In this role, Osman works with other campus groups to address equity and highlight student voices, such as the Inclusion, Diversity, and Equity Council and its newly hired director, Idella Glenn, who is associate vice president for equity, inclusion, and community impact.
During the summer of 2020, in the midst of everything that was happening, she noticed she hadn’t heard from the college about it. “So I sent an email to the USM president, telling him it’s important. And I copied a bunch of students who felt kind of betrayed that the school wasn’t speaking out and backing them.” She realized that many students did not have anyone at the school who was helping them talk about what they were going through, or being the voice for them. The school needed to understand that, even though it didn’t happen in Maine, it still affected students. “It happened to someone who looked like them, and it could have been a member of their family.”
Writing the email prompted her to organize a panel to talk about incidents at USM so the administration could hear what was happening. “I thought it was important to have this direct conversation among students and the administration,” she said. The Naming and Framing Racism panel took place in December, via Zoom, and addressed racism on campus, now and in the past. “There were moments when there were racist tendencies, and students would say things or do things but wouldn’t know who to go to or talk to about it.” One of her friends felt so uncomfortable after a professor used the n-word that she dropped the class. Students didn’t know what to do or where to find paperwork to file a report. At the end of last semester, students made a list of what they wanted, such as a biweekly meeting with different members of the administration to talk about ways to make the school more equitable.
This is Osman’s second and final year at USM, and she’s glad to see the school working toward change. “I think the school has been great about working on everything and about collaboration. Originally, it was kind of iffy. And as they heard student voices, they realized it’s a problem.” Students want USM to prioritize students of color to join search committees. “The student body might be diverse, but faculty is not as much.” Finding faculty that students are able to talk to is important. They also want USM to allocate resources to groups and things that are already happening, keeping students at the center of the focus on career and success. “Just making sure that students are able to see themselves, and transparency so they know that their voices are important,” she said.
She is glad for the opportunity to be a part of the changes. “The school has gone out of their way to make it more accessible. I’m glad that being able to take this position, that it could affect different things. I want students who are coming in to be able to voice their concerns.” She’s asked the school to include information about reporting racist incidents in orientation for the resident assistants, so they can put the forms under everybody’s dorm room doors. Already, information is going out via Instagram, different classes’ Facebook pages, and by email. “Word of mouth is very strong. I believe next year’s cabinet will hopefully take the initiative to make sure students are more aware,” she said.
Right now, Osman works with Gateway Community Services in a COVID coalition group that helps publicize information about the virus, and also conducts panels about racial equity and working with youth. And she’s interning with Maine Equal Justice, focused on different types of legislation, such as healthcare for immigrants. “The work that I’m doing right now with Gateway and Maine Equal Justice is what I really want to do,” she said. “One of my goals has always been to help people. I don’t know exactly what I want to do; I just know I want to make an impact.”
Is she interested in running for office herself? “If you’d asked me two months or a year ago, I would have said no. But now I realize that, running for office, I could really make a difference and help the community. Right here in Maine. I think change starts at home.” With her experience making change at USM, she’s off to a good start.