Sara Elaqad was just 7 years old when she fled home with her parents during the Bosnian War, landing first as a refugee in Arizona and then spending the next decade moving from city to city before making her way to Cleveland in her early 20s to attend law school at Case Western Reserve University.
It was here on the shores of Lake Erie that she developed an interest in immigration law, a specialty she's now pursuing professionally at Margaret Wong and Associates. It's also where she was introduced to Minds Matter Cleveland, the local branch of the national non-profit that assists area high school students from low income families achieve academic success and land at schools like Harvard, MIT, and Stanford.
"Education has always been near and dear to me," Elaqad says, "Education — and family — are really the only things you have when you're stripped of all your worldly possessions like many immigrants are." That value system, paired with the belief that everyone — regardless of social circumstance — should have the opportunity to reach academic excellence, is what first led her to seek out a volunteer position with Minds Matter and eventually propelled her into a leadership role as senior vice president of programs.
"Everyone has basic human dignity, and we all have this potential that we're born with. It shouldn't matter that you're born across a city border," she says. Lack of access "can have a terrible impact on [a student's] life and can prevent them from getting the education they have the potential to get. That's something I can definitely identify with."
Now, two years after joining the organization, the 28-year-old oversees all local Minds Matter programming, which includes the mentor program, summer program, student affairs, alumni relations and college admissions, to name a few. Pair that with a law clerk position at Margaret Wong — where she also assists people with high-stakes, high-reward cases — and the rest of her obligations, and it starts to feel like a marathon. Did we mention she's training for one of those too?
"I'm super organized," she says with a laugh. She's also visibly passionate about the work she does for both organizations. Her one-on-one work with Minds Matter students is one of the most rewarding aspects of her volunteer position, she says. "Really getting to know the kids, and getting to the grit of it: That's how you can make a difference on an individual level."
Continuing to build these relationships with students, as well as those between volunteers and the community, is one of Elaqad's long-term goals for Minds Matter and for herself. "I'm planning to stay in Cleveland and continue building up the things that I'm involved in." If her track record is any indication, she undoubtedly will.