Empowering the leaders of tomorrow

Pursing an education can be a family matter. This is certainly the case for Manuel Ramirez, 32, president of the Associated Students of Citrus College, and Farihah Chowdhury, 20, student trustee. Both are advocates for their family’s cultural heritage.

Learning more about their heritage, Chowdhury is Bangladeshi and Ramirez is Native American from the Otoe Missouria tribe.

These student leaders are being honored as Man and Woman of the Year for the class of 2015. This award is presented each year to June graduates who embody the Citrus College success story.

The Achievement Awards ceremony is scheduled for May 28, at 7 p.m. in the Haugh Performing Arts Center.  At 5:30 p.m. prior to the award ceremony,  a reception will occur allowing the recipients pictures to be taken with faculty, family and friends.

“They have gone above and beyond,” said Terilyn Shamhart, Achievement Awards coordinator and administrative assistant in the Office of Student Affairs.

“They have done well academically, but they still have found the time to do a lot of extra work beyond their normal daily tasks,” she said. ”They are still social among the other students on campus.”

The selection process involves several steps. First, a faculty member nominates a student candidate. Students receive a nomination announcement that links them to online questionnaires to complete and submit.

A panel then narrows the field to three females and three males for the final interview. The panel consists of administrators, supervisors and students.

“We try to get everyone on campus involved,” Shamhart said. “We try to vary it every year, so we get everybody involved at some point.”

This year faculty nominated 14 students for the award. Professor Brian Waddington, honors transfer coordinator, nominated both Ramirez and Chowdhury.

Waddington met Chowdhury through Phi Theta Kappa honor society and Ramirez through the Native American Student Association. Waddington said he admires how they have grown into their leadership roles.

“Both came to campus with low expectations,” Waddington said. “Neither of them envisioned that they would take on the types of roles and have the types of experiences that they would have here.”

Originally, neither student planned to attend Citrus College. Ramirez was working at the clothing store Hot Topic when the recession hit causing him to reconsider school.  Chowdhury’s plans to attend a private school fell through so she decided to attend Citrus.

“I think there is this kind of attitude that this is just community college,” Waddington said. “They had this experience, they changed their lives, and now made their lives better. Not only did they affect themselves, they made their families stronger.”

Both students are members of historically underrepresented groups in the American education system.

Ramirez is a first generation Native American whose family tribe is located on a reservation in Oklahoma.

“I saw what my grandmother had to go through and I saw how it affected my mother and how it has affected the rest of my family,” Ramirez said. “I know there is more to life than just what has been given to us.”

“I felt so strongly about attending college, wanting to learn more because I understand that education is a good thing,” he said.

By contrast, Chowdhury’ parents migrated from Bangladesh. Both her parents received their masters’ degrees and she learned the value of higher education.

“I come from a background where women are not given that voice,” Chowdhury said. “They don’t have that option to be in the limelight as opposed to their spouses or their male counterparts.”

“The fact that I have been able to achieve what I have at Citrus is a huge testament to breaking those boundaries in my culture,” she said.

Chowdhury’s top transfer choice is the Marshall School of Business at the University of Southern California.

“Being at Citrus I realized that in addition to working in the business sector I would like to help underprivileged or underrepresented groups in whatever capacity,” Chowdhury said.

Ramirez is planning to transfer to Institute of American Indian Arts, a tribal art college in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

“Getting to meet all the students from other tribes makes me so happy because it always reminds me of the teachings growing up in my life from my grandmother…It always feels like it is a rekindling of something almost lost,” Ramirez said.

Waddington appreciates the quality of work and the poise that both students bring to student leadership.

“[Farihah] is almost role modeling with her mother and also with other young women in her community,” Waddington said. “[Manuel] really loves just all cultures. He takes this idea of ethnicity and doesn’t just keep it to indigenous people but wants it to go beyond.”

His advice to the Man and Woman of the Year is to be confident.

“You will be successful if you keep following the practices and the habits that you cultivated here. Remember where you came from.”