Humans of St. Thomas: Faith Guides First DFC Student Body President

As a Muslim American, Mesum Haider ’19 AA, '22 said he felt overlooked academically, personally and socially at his suburban public high school that was more than 90% white. He had a very different experience once he stepped through the doors of Dougherty Family College (DFC) in 2017. There, where the student population was majority BIPOC, he was a leader. His peers elected him as the inaugural student body president. He went on to become one of the first DFC scholars to receive a full scholarship and to transition to the University of St. Thomas in 2019.

Mesum Haider speaks at the Archbishop John Ireland Dinner.
(Mark Brown / University of St. Thomas)

Now, set to graduate from the university with a bachelor’s degree in spring 2022 and a job offer already in hand from Target Corp.’s global supply chain division, Haider continues to inspire. He is one of 21 St. Thomas seniors nominated for this school year's 2022 Tommie Award.

"Mesum had the heart of a Tommie the first day he walked on campus," wrote DFC Interim Dean Buffy Smith in her nomination form. "Mesum was 'all in' during his first two years at Dougherty Family College and he has continued to thrive in his scholarship, leadership and campus involvement during his bachelor’s degree program."

In fact, the story of his journey even caused some to shed a tear or two when he spoke to a roomful of St. Thomas donors at the annual Ireland Dinner held in November in the field house at the Anderson Athletic and Recreation Complex in St. Paul, Minnesota.

Why did you choose to attend the Dougherty Family College?

As a branded troublemaker growing up, the thought of college was daunting. My previous educational experiences rarely ever reflected me or my deep-seated ambitions for change. As I learned about DFC, I quickly understood it was an institution with a rigorous, real-world curriculum and dedication to making the common good a reality through community engagement, passionate support systems, and faith-based learning.

It fiercely strived to change the systemic social, economic and political inequities that affected people within my reach. It solidified my goals to defeat the doubts I had about being successful for my future and my family.

Coming into a cohort model system was like a breath of fresh air. I couldn’t have imagined that many different types of races and people from all spectrums all in one room. I was inspired. DFC gave me an opportunity to mold my potential purposefully while creating change as a leader for all.

You were in your first semester of a college that had just opened its doors to its first entering class when you became student body president. What compelled you to take on this leadership role at the Dougherty Family College?

My ambition to make a positive difference started from my Islamic faith and personal research on different leaders. I studied the literature and work ethic of historical leaders – both civil rights activists and religious figures  – so I could follow in their footsteps and build an array of skills necessary to lift people up through education.

I grew up a person passionate about faith. I was born and raised in a family of Muslims. I grew up in a community of Muslims. We had our own [religious] school called madrasas, which showed you beautiful and creative ways to learn about religions.

Haider and his mom, Bushra, meet with President Julie Sullivan during a Dougherty Family College reception in 2019. (Mark Brown / University of St. Thomas)

As soon as you step outside your house or step outside your mosque and community, it’s a whole different world; it's a different environment in a public school and college. So, kind of dealing with that was something that took a bit of wisdom, and it took a bit of patience.

The student body at Dougherty Family College is much more diverse than at your public high school. Tell us about that difference.

I kind of wrote about this in my DFC commencement speech. In public high school, it was just like feeling overlooked and doubted in your classrooms; feeling tolerated, you know, but not really embraced. Even within textbooks and history lessons and all those lessons that we learned, it just felt like people of color, our contribution to the world, felt really rushed.

That was where I started to question, ‘Hey, who am I? What am I really trying to chase after? What's important to me?’ And the answer was faith. It always was. Faith has been a cornerstone in my life.

And choosing to attend a Catholic university helped you with finding answers that aligned with your faith?

Faith-based learning is huge here at St Thomas, but it's not strictly just Catholicism. It's for the common good. For me, that meant a lot of how am I pushing society forward? What am I doing to make the people around me better, the places around me better? That has always been my drive to create change.

So, a big reason why I chose St. Thomas is it gave me the education that will allow me to change places and people for the better. And it did that, through giving me examples from the past respective of my place in it, through powerful and unique frameworks concerned with theology, philosophy, ethics and leadership. These transformed my mindset. It’s always about mindset for me. I really respect the mind’s power over the body, and so, if you get your mindset right, you can fly through whatever change manifests around you. So, St. Thomas was big for me in that regard.

Haider and his sister Kulsoom '23, a master's degree student in St. Thomas' Graduate School of Professional Psychology, share a moment in James B. Woulfe Alumni Hall during a Dougherty Family College reception for faculty, staff, students and donors in honor of the first DFC graduating class on May 16, 2019, in St. Paul. (Mark Brown / University of St. Thomas)

You received a full scholarship to transition from DFC to St. Thomas to receive your bachelor’s degree. Tell us about that day you found out.

I still recall everything about that day. I was in the Dougherty Family College Commons when my name was selected, and I was informed that I was receiving a full-tuition scholarship for St. Thomas. Imagine your name being called up knowing your whole life was about to change!

In that moment, I understood that people believed in me the way I believed in myself. That belief was indeed rewarded. I saw no more ceilings to my dreams or potential. The waves of humility, excitement and ambition I felt were very overwhelming.

That day was even more powerful because my mom was recovering in the hospital. She had just gotten out of surgery. When she woke up in her hospital bed, I told her: ‘I got a full ride scholarship. My college is secure, my future is secure.’

Seeing her smile – seeing smiles on both of my parents’ faces who cut their own wings so that I could fly – was the best feeling I could’ve ever asked for. It’s a moment in time that will stay with me forever.

Your Associate of Arts was in justice and peace studies. This spring you’re receiving a bachelor’s degree in business administration with a focus on operations and supply chain management, with minors in data analytics and interfaith religious leadership. What’s next for you?

As I finish my final year, I aim to continue promoting religious understanding on and off campus as part of the university’s interfaith council and am excited about helping support local nonprofits that are invested in racial equity through my work on the Damus Board.

This summer, I’ll start as an inventory analyst at Target’s headquarters. I’m thrilled to apply what I have learned from my Opus College of Business major focused in operations and supply chain management. I’ll also take some time to travel, naively critique movies and spend quality time with my loved ones.

I know I am on my way to living out my full potential.

Mesum Haider appears in this Dougherty Family College video, including the moment his name was announced for the tuition scholarship.