- Student Life
Senior Ismael Karim’s Journey to Courageously Living and Discovering His Identity
By Jack Figge ’22
Inspiration can come from anywhere. Maybe it is a person – a beloved teacher, a fellow classmate, or a parent. Maybe it is a famous quote or Bible passage, or perhaps it is a phrase in an Instagram bio. Actress Yara Shahidi’s instagram bio is where senior Ismael Karim found his inspirational gem, a simple three-word message: “Don’t integrate, recreate.” Karim takes those three words to heart in his everyday life, as he strives to live an authentic, courageous life at St. Louis University High.
Karim’s high school journey started in an unconventional way. His childhood was dominated by frequent school transfers. He began his academic journey at Henderson elementary, an elementary school in the St. Louis city school district. In sixth grade, he transferred to the Academy of the Sacred Heart in St. Charles. Yet the biggest move for Karim occurred after his seventh grade year, when his family moved to the Canary Islands, a small island chain located off the west coast of Morocco. It was there he spent eighth grade.
“When I returned to the U.S. after eighth grade, I hadn't spoken English for an entire year. I was different. My attitude, my outlook on life was different.
“Being isolated on seven islands in the middle of the ocean for a long period of time really does change you," said Karim.
Two weeks before Karim was set to begin high school, he returned home to St. Louis from the Canary Islands. Unlike his fellow freshman peers, Karim began his high school experience relatively blind. He was not able to attend the two days of freshman orientation, Direction Days, nor could he attend summer school – all experiences that freshman cite as being instrumental for a smoother transition to high school.
“I was confronted with a huge challenge of coming back here and fitting into SLUH. This is a competitive space, a space that challenges you,” said Karim. “I didn't see myself following the same path that other people did, easily finding a friend group or feeling motivated to paint myself blue and run outside without a shirt on or participate in bashball. That desire to take my own path was really hard to come to terms with.”
So began Karim’s four-year process to discover who he is and make his impression on the halls of SLUH.
Struggle defined the first two years of Karim’s tenure at Oakland Avenue. A struggle with finding his place, a struggle with finding his identity, and a struggle with the academic rigor that every student encounters at SLUH.
Freshman year was a culture shock for Karim, especially after having spent a year in the Canary Islands, an island dominated by Spanish culture. For the majority of his freshman year, Karim was seeking out a group that he could call friends, a group that he could fit in with.
“I dictated the way I acted depending on my environment,” said Karim. “If I was around a group of people and they were all football players, then I would act like I liked football. But the truth is I don't like football.”
As Karim began to close out his freshman year, he finally began to find a group he felt comfortable with: the Association for Cultural Enrichment at SLUH (ACES). This would be the group of peers that Karim would rely on for the next three years and a club that he could call home.
Sophomore year brought with it a new set of difficulties. Investing a majority of his time into leading and planning club meetings, Karim soon found it difficult to balance his vast involvement in extracurriculars and school work.
“Every single day during activity period, I was at a club meeting or I was organizing something. During that first semester, I never caught a break, but I loved it,” said Karim “So when COVID came, it was a good opportunity for me to just catch my breath and be like, I need to settle down a little bit. I need to prioritize the things that really matter to me. And I think that was good for me for maybe a month.”
While the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic brought a sense of relaxation and escape from the relentlessness of his everyday life, for Karim, the transition to asynchronous learning brought with it new challenges and difficulties. But determined to maintain his good grades and continue to learn and thrive despite a new learning environment, Karim poured countless time and energy into thriving despite the unprecedented conditions.
During the last quarter of the 2019-2020 school year, Karim was assigned a final essay in his Sophomore English class, taught by Mr. Sean O’Brien. Over the course of a week of writing, Karim learned the importance of consulting with teachers and recognized the love that his teachers had for him.
“Ish did what most students don’t do, which is to actually ask for help in terms of his essay writing process. He engaged in the back and forth process of revision over Zoom even in the midst of COVID, which most students just did not do,” said O’Brien. “He made a deliberate choice to put in the work.”
The pandemic and a summer of political tensions ignited a desire within Karim: a desire to serve the school community through illuminating the racial and political tensions that haunt America. Taking another leap of faith, Karim applied to Student Council (STUCO) and was selected to serve as the secretary.
“I wanted right away to start addressing the student body with regards to the protests and chaos in our own community,” said Karim. “Whether it was leading the Latino Student Union and making sure everyone in our club was good during current chaos, or through leading the One World club and helping others understand the global effects of all political tensions, or through organizing STUCO events, I was just hoping to help educate the whole student body and make a difference.”
At the end of junior year, Karim faced a dilemma: how would he leave an impact on SLUH during his final year of high school? Karim knew he wanted to serve on STUCO again in some capacity but believed that he was not suited to run for an elected position. But after some insistent pestering from a few faculty members and friends, Karim decided to face his fear of public speaking and leave the fate of his STUCO seat up to public opinion as he ran for vice president.
“There was so much fear running because I would be one of the first Latinos and the first Muslim to be the student body vice president and that was a huge, huge challenge for me,” said Karim.
“On the Wednesday before we were supposed to give our speeches I asked Mr. Mueller if he could take out my application because I didn't want to run anymore. But he talked me out of it.”
Despite having great fears and anxiety about speaking in front of the entire class of 2022, Karim’s speech solidly earned him the seat. He joined STUCO for his second year, this time in the second highest position. This year, he has led the school with great diligence through planning events like the annual Back to School mixer and organizing speakers to present to the student body about important issues.
“The way that Ish carries himself and leads others is truly inspiring,” said student body president AJ Thompson ‘22. “He is confident in himself and his decisions, yet he is one of the most humble people you will meet.”
High school is a time of growth, a time of development. It is a time that should challenge one’s self and force one to step outside of their comfort zone. For Karim, high school has been a time of realizing that while he may not conform to the profile of a typical SLUH student, he could not allow those differences to hold him back.
“Here I was, this Hispanic, South Asian Muslim, navigating this whole Catholic, very white atmosphere,” said Karim. “And I had to realize that if I set my standards depending on how other people set them, I was never going to be where I wanted to be.”
This realization that he could not become trapped by others’ expectations allowed Karim to develop a worldview that has redefined the way he lives, a worldview that he hopes everyone will come to accept.
“We all have our own unique identity, our own unique perspectives, our own unique story. Everybody has worth and it's important for people to recognize their own worth,” said Karim. “I used to be so trapped worrying about other people’s perception of me, whereas now I try to just be unapologetically me because I realize that every space I enter, I bring unique ideas and a unique perspective that no one around me has.”
Author Jack Figge ’22 is the Prep News Editor-in-Chief, Pastoral Vice President for the Men for Life club, a Senior Advisor, and a President and Admissions Ambassador. He hopes to pursue a double major in theology and journalism in college, with Catholic media or teaching as a possible career path.
Photographer Miles Schulte ’22 plays golf and participates in robotics, the car club and the outdoor adventure club. He hopes to study architecture or engineering in college.