2016 Graduate Shakila’s Strength Comes from Within

By Sarah Kurtzman, Treehouse Marketing & Communications

Eighteen-year-old Shakila remembers the exact moment that she realized she could control her own destiny. It was the day that she met a woman that owned a dress shop in her small Ugandan village. Independence was a rarity for women in Shakila’s village, but here was a woman that was single, self-supporting, and lived life by her own rules. Shakila was enthralled by the prospect.

Shakila had been pulled out of school at a very young age to help care for her siblings. She knew that without an education or trade her future would remain within the confines of her home. She snuck out often to visit the dressmaker who served as a mentor and touchstone for Shakila through a number of challenging years. She helped Shakila find her inner strength, dream big, and stay positive.


Shakila and a few extended family members moved to Washington State early in Shakila’s teen years with the hopes of building a brighter future for themselves. Soon after their arrival, Shakila learned that her caregiver had no intention of allowing her to go to school and was planning to put her to work at home once again. Shakila knew that her big dreams for the future would never come to be without an education and so she spoke to her social worker and was placed into foster care.

Her first placement was in a primarily white, middle to upper class area on the eastside and Shakila experienced acute culture shock. The family was warm and welcoming but she was literally the only African student at school and she was still learning English so communication was a challenge. Shakila’s past, which was so very different from that of her peers, made her feel like an outsider, so she repressed it distancing herself from those trying to get to know her. She felt completely isolated and alone.


Over the summer, her caregivers reached out to Treehouse to connect Shakila with a camp experience to have fun, make friends, and be surrounded by a more diverse group of people. The Power of Hope camp was just what Shakila needed. Every youth came from a different background and they were united by this diversity. They not only had fun doing typical camp activities, they also learned critical skills on how to build bridges across lines of difference like culture and class. Shakila realized that her efforts to distance herself from her past and culture was preventing her from being her full self in her new community. She decided to own her past and present, and finally began feeling comfortable in her own skin. Her peers back in school learned that she wasn’t just “the girl from Africa,” she was an amazing, ambitious, and intelligent young woman that enjoys fashion, reading, writing, and track. She began thriving socially and making progress on the academic front as well.


During high school, Shakila was moved to a new placement with her brother in South King County. She was deeply saddened to leave her foster family, but excited by the idea of living in a diverse community where the majority of students had overcome significant life obstacles. Blending in for the first time since moving to the U.S. allowed Shakila to really focus on forming her identity, figuring out who she was, and who she wanted to be.

Shakila loves to learn, and has the innate drive to succeed, but found herself unsure of what her path would look like after graduating from high school. She was largely unfamiliar with how school systems work in the U.S. and wasn’t sure what was next. She was connected with Treehouse Education Specialist Natalie Prunty and together they discussed Shakila’s passions and possible goals for the future. Shakila shared that her dream was to have her very own TED talk entitled “Hunger for Success.” She wanted to serve as a motivational speaker to encourage youth like herself to find their inner strength and feel capable of following their dreams. Natalie had no doubt that this incredibly resilient young woman that radiates optimism and strength would be the perfect fit for this future career path. After discussing the various skills that would help her excel as a motivational speaker, Shakila and Natalie agreed that pursuing a college education was a natural next step.


Shakila and her Education Specialist, Natalie Prunty

Over the next year Natalie helped Shakila learn how to navigate the various support systems and services available to assist her in achieving this goal. She helped her research schools, financial aid, and scholarship options. Natalie helped Shakila through the application process and provided moral support during the nerve-wracking wait for college responses.

This spring Shakila learned that she was accepted at Western Washington University and that they are granting her a 50% scholarship due to her phenomenal skills in track! This grant, together with the Governors’ Scholarship for Foster Youth, will make college a real possibility for Shakila next fall.

So, what is Shakila most excited about right now? Well, it is tough for her to decide. A couple of weeks ago she was asked to speak on behalf of the entire senior class at their graduation ceremony. Last week she placed fifth in state for track. On Friday she was the first person in her family to graduate from high school. And this fall she will take her next big step toward her dream career of empowering young people around the world to find their strength from within.

Watch Shakila share her story on King 5 News.

Subscribe to Our Blog

About the Author

Sarah Kurtzman is the Associate Director of Marketing and Communications for Treehouse. She has the honor of working with youth like Shakila who have experienced foster care to share their stories of resilience, strength, and hope.

Leave a Comment