By: Nick Santangelo

When political science major and history minor Maha Ouni addresses the College of Liberal Arts (CLA) class of 2019 as one of two student commencement speakers Friday, she’ll do so as a first-generation college graduate.

The journey to that destination started when Ouni’s father won the United States’ Diversity Visa Lottery and immigrated to New York City from Tunis, Tunisia, where Ouni spent a lot of her time as a child. Ouni’s dad eventually saved enough money to bring his wife over to join him, and the family moved to Philadelphia after their daughter was born. Without the support and influence of her parents, Ouni says she would have never made it to where she is now.

For example, when she developed visions of becoming a lawyer, her father carved out time while working as a restaurant manager and cab driver to pick the brains of half the legal minds in the city about how his daughter could become one of their peers. The advice he received and Ouni’s desire to go to college in her favorite city in the world brought her here. Now she’s ready to pass on some advice of her own—to her fellow graduates and to her soon-to-be college student younger brother as Ouni prepares to walk Friday.

“I would say, do things that take you out of your comfort zone, and, or most importantly, do not be afraid of failure,” advises Ouni, “which is a sneak preview of what's to come in my CLA Commencement speech. My greatest accomplishments have come after or coupled with tons and tons of failures.”

It’s advice that echoes what was recently given to CLA students by an alumnus with decades of career experience. But Ouni has already had more than enough experiences with failures breeding successes even as a college student. After applying to and being turned down for a number of study abroad scholarships as a junior, Ouni was ready to give up—but she persisted, and it paid off. After winning the Fund for Education Abroad scholarship, she was able to spend last summer in Paris.

Do things that take you out of your comfort zone

Going even further back, Ouni feared she would never recover and become a good student again after failing pre-calculus in high school. But here she is today graduating on the Dean’s List after a successful internship with former Philadelphia Mayor John F. Street and a pair of study abroad experiences (she spent a summer in Rome in addition to her summer in Paris). Given the adversity she had to overcome to arrive here, Ouni wants to make sure people see more than just the end result.

“If you want to achieve anything you should be willing to be vulnerable and put yourself out there to be rejected because that happens to all of us,” she says. “No one wakes up and gets the job they want, the fellowship they want. Or even if do you have everything at some point you've still experienced that loss, that failure or that rejection, but it doesn't stop there.”

For most people, great things don’t just happen. After failing, most have to keep on pushing. Ouni says the time management and analytical skills she learned as a CLA student were crucial in keeping her moving towards her dreams of graduating with honors and eventually becoming a lawyer.

Ouni actually says she now feels like she’s prepared for any career, lawyer or otherwise. Good thing too, since she’s excited to begin an investment firm job she accepted for after graduation. There she hopes to gain financial literacy skills and to become a resource for her community of fellow first-generation Americans and immigrants

But she’s also got something simpler in mind.

“Whenever people have asked me, ‘OK, you've done all this stuff, what's next for you? What do you want after graduation?’ I literally tell them, as Beyoncé Giselle Knowles put it, just to be happy.”

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