From Kabul, Afghanistan to Evanston, Illinois: How One Student Defied the Odds to Succeed at Roycemore School

Statistics on education remain difficult to gather in Afghanistan due to widespread barriers surrounding data collection, but a recent estimate suggests that less than 10 percent of students pursue an education until grade 12, and that of the students who choose to study abroad, only about three percent end up in the United States.

From the beginning of his journey to seek an education outside of Kabul, Afghanistan, the odds were stacked against Iman Amini.

Iman’s journey from Kabul to Roycemore School is a broader story about perseverance, overcoming and becoming. From learning to adapt to American culture to expressing himself artistically for the first time, he continues to flourish and defy the odds.

“Iman was identified as a student of promise,” said Adrianne Finley Odell, the Head of Roycemore School. One of his high school teacher’s in Kabul recognized his potential and handed him a list with over 300 schools from China to the United States that accept international students, inspiring him to imagine a future abroad for the first time. With an Internet connection mostly reliable between the hours of midnight and 5 a.m., he spent months researching schools, and over time, he whittled his list down to 50 schools and Roycemore School was one of them. Roycemore School, established in 1915, is a small, top ten Pre-K – 12 college preparatory school with a rigorous and progressive curriculum located steps away from downtown Evanston. When Amanda Avery, the Director of Admissions and Financial Aid, received his application, she felt compelled to bring it to the board’s attention.

Equally moved by Iman’s vision, story and will, the board made an exception and agreed to accept Iman and cover 80% of his tuition (it is rare for independent schools to offer significant financial aid to international students). His family scraped together the remaining 20% – a monumental undertaking for them – and Iman started at Roycemore School in the fall of 2017.

Transitioning from a nation besieged by war and poverty to a country seemingly overflowing in prosperity is not easy. Iman initially struggled to engage socially in a culture where, from his perspective, teenagers wasted so much time. For several months after he arrived, his routine remained unchanged: school, study, sleep and repeat. With the encouragement of Roycemore teachers and staff, including Finley Odell, he emerged from this sequence and began making social connections. He started playing soccer, and he found spaces outside of school to connect with other Afghan families living in the U.S. The school community also rallied around him to help him financially, with families buying him winter clothes and soccer shoes, a board member anonymously donating funds for health care and another board member buying him a bike so that he could partake in an activity he loved doing back home. Two seperate Roycemore families opened their homes to him to host him as a member of their own family. Both his social and academic growth helped him secure a full scholarship to Northwestern University’s Center for Talent Development (CTD) to take a six-week chemistry class during the summer (where he also experienced dorm living).

Just as Iman persevered to clear many obstacles throughout his first year, the community persevered with him. When his family could not cover the remaining portion of his tuition for the 2018-19 school year, others stepped up. Over the second half of the summer, his host family took him to their family reunion in upstate New York. Like others who have met him, he moved them – with his humility, his kindness and his commitment to his academic studies. They shared his joy in swimming and kayaking for the first time, and in witnessing the stunning beauty of Niagara Falls. Several weeks later, Finley Odell walked into her office and opened an envelope. Checks poured out from the family in New York and friends they had shared Iman’s story with, enough to cover the final 20% of his tuition. For his second year at Roycemore, a family with no ties to the school opened their hearts and home to take him in as their own.

His story in America will not end upon his graduation from Roycemore School in June. Roycemore’s college counselor, Stacia Campbell, researched colleges and universities that offer financial aid to international students. Iman was recently awarded a full scholarship to Warren Wilson College in Asheville, N.C. Part of the application process involved creating a video. In the video, he told the admissions committee that one of the reasons he wanted to be accepted was to make Finley Odell happy because she has been like a mom to him. With over 4000 followers on Instagram, a new interest in sculpture and a keen eye as a photographer, Iman continues to discover who he is authentically as both an academic and as an evolving artist. No longer is the question, “will he succeed?,” but “how much incredible success will he experience?”

From the encouragement of a high school teacher 6,941 miles away, to the decision by Roycemore’s board to make an exception, to the compassion of families who hosted him, to the commitment of Roycemore’s staff, and, especially, to Iman’s own resolve, his future is bright. He came to Roycemore School with a dream of one day going back and making a difference in his country. As he continues to embark on the road less traveled, he takes with him the energy, the drive and the intelligence to not just make changes, but to be the change.

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