2015 Student of the Year: Munira Khalif

After gaining acceptance to all 11 colleges to which she applied (including the eight elite Ivy League schools), a star student might be justified in expecting her school to put on a pep rally in her honor. But that’s not Munira Khalif’s style. Instead, the recent graduate of St. Paul’s Mounds Park Academy is quick to share the credit for her success with those around her. “I don’t think it was a win just for myself, necessarily, but for the school, the community, and my family,” she says. “It shows that the effort they’d all put into me really paid off.”

Khalif herself has put in plenty of effort academically at Mounds Park, culminating in a Constitutional Law project her senior year in which she mock-argued a current case for a panel of law practitioners at the Minnesota Supreme Court. In addition to acing her classes, Khalif also co-founded a charity with her siblings when she was a freshman. The campaign, Lighting the Way, has raised funds to build libraries, provide scholarships, and solve sanitation issues to make youth education more accessible in East Africa.

“My mother grew up in Somalia, and my grandpa was very revolutionary,” explains Khalif. “He wanted not just his sons to go to school, but also his daughters. My mom was granted this gift of education, and she passed that down to me—I think that’s why I’m so drawn to the issue.”

For an 18-year-old, Khalif is extremely aware of global and national matters, which she credits to her former United States history teacher: “She made us all change our homepage to The New York Times,” she laughs. “So you just can’t escape the news.” And she credits her public-speaking skills to her experience on Mounds Park’s speech and debate teams.

Those skills have helped Khalif’s advocacy efforts gain international attention. She was invited to perform a piece of her spoken-word poetry at a United Nations celebration for Malala Yousafzai, a young education advocate, in 2013. The next year, she received the United Nations Special Envoy for Global Education’s Youth Courage Award, which honors young people working to achieve universal education—putting Khalif in rare company.

“I remember reading all the stories of the award’s recipients the year that I was at the UN for Malala Day, and I never saw myself as being on the same plane as them,” she says. During high school, Khalif also founded her school’s Social Consciousness Club as a platform for students to discuss world issues, became an ambassador for A World at School, an international organization that brings together young leaders in education advocacy, and worked with Girl Up, a group that mobilizes American girls to campaign for their counterparts in other countries.

As she heads off to Harvard this fall, she’s grateful for all these opportunities, but also appreciates her everyday high-school memories. “I don’t know if it’s the big moments that are really the highlights,” she says. “Really, it’s when you’re in the halls laughing with your friends about the most trivial things. I’ll remember those times, too.”