Inspiring Minds

DATE: Wednesday, May 19, 2021

Safiyah Bey '21 is first of HCC's Profiles of Excellence for Commencement 2021

Safiyah Bey

Growing up, Safiyah Bey never had to look far for inspiration. 

When she was 9, her aunts introduced her to Gardening in the Community, a Springfield nonprofit that promotes urban agriculture and food justice. She worked with the group for seven years, ultimately coaching other young volunteers as a youth leader. 

Her mother is Tahira Amtul-Wadud, a family law attorney and civil rights advocate who ran a 2018 primary challenge against U.S. Rep. Richard Neal (D-Springfield) for his long-held seat in the House of Representatives. Bey worked on her mom's campaign and has also worked in her law office.   

 "Along with being a lawyer, she does a lot of interfaith work and political work and social justice outreach," said the 19-year-old Bey, who lives in Springfield. "She's on the boards of a lot of community organizations that are really inspiring to me and that I have also worked with. Through her I really found my love for social justice work. She really exposed me to the importance of community service. She's my main inspiration for everything."

It should surprise no one that Bey plans to become a lawyer herself one day, and she chose Holyoke Community College to help get her there.    

On June 5, Bey, a former president of the HCC Student Senate, will join her classmates for a virtual Commencement celebrating the classes of 2020 and 2021. Bey completed her studies at HCC in December, earning an associate degree in liberal arts. This spring she finished her first semester at Mount Holyoke College, where she is studying international relations. 

"I don't think I'd be at Mount Holyoke right now if it wasn't for HCC," said Bey. "HCC really prepared me very nicely in terms of the workload and course formats. It is such an amazing school, and it definitely sets students up for success."  

Bey spent her early years in private Muslim schools, first in West Springfield and then in Windsor, Conn. But with six siblings (two older, four younger), the commute and cost eventually became prohibitive. Rather than start 11th grade in Springfield, Bey entered Gateway to College, a dual enrollment program at HCC that puts high school students in college classes, allowing them to earn high school diplomas while also collecting college credits. 

"That was one of the best decisions I've made throughout my school career," Bey said. 

Through Gateway, Bey completed 11th and 12th grades in one year and then seamlessly continued on at HCC.     

"Safiyah was a gift to us," said Gateway's director Vivian Ostrowski. "She is delightful, kind, engaged, brilliant, and ready to make a difference." 

In 2019, Ostrowski recommended Bey for a fellowship with Generation Teach. Bey spent that  summer teaching math to sixth-graders in Holyoke Public Schools. The experience "definitely had an impact on me," said Bey, "and I could see the impact that I had and that my team had on the students." 

As an undergraduate, Bey challenged herself by taking some of HCC's most demanding courses – Honors Colloquiums and Learning Communities exploring the intersection of criminal justice and economics; women and incarceration; immigration and law. She earned multiple distinctions for academic success: Dean's List, Phi Theta Kappa Honor Society; Commonwealth Honors Scholar; and several scholarships from the HCC Foundation. 

Like her mother, Bey has long been involved with a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit called CAIR - the Council on American-Islamic Relations. Through CAIR, Bey traveled to Washington in 2016 and 2017 for Muslim Lobby Day, where she met with legislators on Capitol Hill. Bey now serves on CAIR's Youth Advisory Council and also on the Community Investment Committee for the Women's Fund of Western Massachusetts, where her mother is on the board of directors. 

At HCC, however, she had been reluctant at first to get involved in campus activities outside of the classroom.    

One day, though, a classmate suggested she join Student Senate. Following the advice of her mother, she did. "I was kind of like in my bubble, minding my own business at school, and that was really getting out of my comfort zone," said Bey. "Student Senate was a whole other world of the school that I had not been part of before." 

Bey grew into the role. Her fellow senators elected her vice president and then president for her final semester. One of her proudest achievements was working to keep senators engaged during the pandemic and motivated to continue working on issues they had set as priorities, such as addressing issues of bias, equity and inclusion. Working remotely, they put together a Black Lives Matter video and worked with the Thrive Student Resource Center at HCC to create a series of online workshops called Financial Fundamentals for students most likely to be affected by financial instability.

But she also hopes that her very presence on Student Senate might inspire others to serve. Bey wears a hijab, and, as far as anyone knows, she may be the first Black Muslim woman ever to be elected Student Senate president at HCC. 

"This is my identity," she said. "I hope I've been able to make a little bit of change at HCC, that I was able to make HCC just a little bit better or a little bit more inclusive for people who might look like me. Maybe I knocked down a barrier for somebody."

STORY and PHOTO of Safiyah Bey by CHRIS YURKO