Aairah Salam, on a Mission to Empower Change through her involvement with ConnectHER

Tell us a little bit about yourself and what you do professionally.

I am Aairah Salam and I am a determined high school student who enjoys writing, more specifically creative and non-fiction, baking, and promoting social change, especially in the fight for gender equity. Regarding writing, my dedication is driven by my desire to convey my thoughts and emotions and inspire others through my words. In my eyes, my words serve as a catalyst for change and empowerment. When speaking about my professional life, I am a huge advocate for women’s equity, and with that, I campaign and ally for women all around the world through community work, writing, and more. I have found a meaningful outlet for my passion by collaborating with ConnectHER, an international nonprofit organization committed to making a positive impact on women all around the world. At ConnectHER, I play a considerable and vital role in spreading ConnectHER’s empowering mission to youth, especially high schoolers. Upon discovering ConnectHER and its amazing impacts on women on a global scale, I took the initiative to email Lila Igram, the founder of ConnectHER, to pursue an opportunity to open up a school-based chapter. And so I did. I opened a club, with my good friend, and have further spread ConnectHER’s influence in various schools all across the US. My work involves engaging the youth igniting their enthusiasm for social change and promoting increased awareness of gender-based issues among female and male high schoolers. I understand the importance of educating and involving young minds in the cause of gender equality and women’s empowerment as I recognize the impact my generation can bring to change the gender system.

What do you enjoy most about your profession and why did you choose it in the first place? What was the inspiration for your company/project?

As a young girl inspired by the prominent female role models within my family, I have been committed to making a name for myself and all other women in pursuit of gender equality. Soon after I turned five, I joined Girl Scouts, a national organization that focuses on the personal development and empowerment of girls and young women, attended Women’s Marches at the Texas State Capitol, and participated in empowering and insightful programs. My inspiration, passion, and reason were only heightened during the summer of my freshman year of high school when I came across The ConnectHER Organization through social media and my mom. As I began researching more on ConnectHER, I discovered that the founder, Lila Igram, resided in the same city I reside in. Therefore, I took it upon myself to email Mrs. Igram to see if there’s any way I can help integrate youth into the organization as addressing gender disparities is heavily needed among high schoolers. She emailed me back wondering if I had any ideas on how to do so, and with that, I offered to establish different high school ConnectHER chapters. As soon as I got the acceptance, I became remarkably motivated to create a school chapter at my own high school. As I gradually started my ConnectHER chapter, I gained over 80 members, one of the biggest student-led clubs at my school. The biggest inspiration and driving force for working with ConnectHER is knowing that although not directly, I get the opportunity to make a meaningful impact on the lives of women and girls all around the world. Furthermore, growing up with strong female role models who advocated for a world where there are more empowered females is the biggest blessing bestowed upon me. I’m extremely passionate and grateful that I can get to be a part of a cause that amplifies the voices of women and brings about positive change in their communities.

Tell us about any new projects you have coming up (or recently completed).

As a junior in high school, I continue to consistently participate in remarkable projects through my involvement in various initiatives. This summer, I was invited to speak at the RFK Human Rights Conference to speak about the outstanding leadership skills I have demonstrated in ConnectHER. As mentioned before, I led the initiative of opening up the first ConnectHER school chapter, in which I became proficient in the nuances of club establishment, recognizing what proved effective and what fell short. Fast forward a year, I now directly mentor six other high schoolers in the US on the ins and outs of opening a ConnectHER club and continue to generate awareness of ConnectHER clubs and their meaningful mission. In fact, in the past few weeks, I have been mentoring a young girl in Pakistan wishing to open up her own ConnectHER club to exemplify the voices of women, especially where she resides. Last year, when I opened up my own school chapter, I earned the Chap Champion, an award given to students who have made significant contributions to my school’s community. Furthermore, I had the incredible opportunity to play a pivotal role in securing $75,000 from the prestigious City of Austin Elevate Grant for ConnectHER. The Elevate Grant offers $10,000 to $75,000 to arts organizations, individual artists, and creative businesses that produce culturally vibrant and diverse artistic content. The founder of ConnectHER requested me to send in a video testimonial discussing the impacts I have made towards ConnectHER, the experiences of starting a feminist-oriented club as a South Asian in a predominantly white school, and the contributions I have made to my school and broader communities. My video testimonial played an integral role in clearly and inspirationally illustrating the local and global impacts ConnectHER has on women and girls. In addition, I am also academically exceptional. This summer, I achieved the AP Scholar with Honor Award. Moreover, I am a talented writer and have made significant contributions through my publications in ATXyz, a digital magazine, and my monthly contributions to my neighborhood magazine. My upcoming publication in BrownGirlMag will cover the negative impacts of stigma around mental health in athletes. Overall, I place great importance in my ability to use my voice to address important issues and inspire change.

What is a typical day like for you?

As a 16-year-old junior in high school with a busy schedule and various interests, my days are usually quite packed. Because academics play a significant role in my life, I am taking various college-level courses such as AP Biology, AP Chemistry, and AP Research. Due to the vigorous and time-consuming course work, I find myself waking up early to get a head start on my homework and study sessions. Although it can be challenging, I enjoy the intellectual challenges that AP courses offer. Outside of school, I am heavily involved in running a ConnectHER club. It’s a fantastic opportunity for me to work and network with others who share my passion for making a positive impact on the world, especially concerning gender equality and education. Planning and organizing events for our club takes up a good chunk of my time, but it’s incredibly fulfilling. Furthermore, I create slides for each club meeting, prepare discussions, and mentor other high schoolers who hope to create their own ConnectHER club. On another note, I treasure spending quality time with my family. I have two younger sisters, one who’s 15 and another who’s just 7 years old. Spending quality time with my family is incredibly important to me as they mean the world to me. As a family, we often have fun family outings, hang out at home, and travel. My dad and I share a love for nature, so we frequently go on nature walks together. It’s our way of bonding and enjoying the beauty of the outdoors together. To balance my busy schedule and stay centered, I’ve started incorporating mindfulness practices and meditation into my daily routine. This helps me find a moment of calm and self-reflection, which is crucial for my overall well-being. For example, I journal every night and practice yoga. Overall, I have a pretty busy life, but I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Tell us about your community involvement – what you are passionate about outside of work and home and why/how you participate?

Community involvement has always been a significant part of my life, and I’m passionate about contributing to causes that I believe in. My love for helping communities also stems from my personal desire to give back to the world. As a volunteer at Foundation Communities’ Learning Center, a nonprofit organization based in Austin, Texas, that provides affordable housing and support services to low-income individuals and families, I help residents and children improve their quality of life. This is done via teaching English, allowing children and young adults to develop skills that can lead to better employment and economic opportunities. By doing so, I foster a sense of community within my class and create a supportive and inclusive environment. Furthermore, I have been involved in Girl Scouts, a national youth organization that empowers girls’ confidence and self-esteem, ever since I was in preschool and have worked up from being a Girl Scout Daisy to a Girl Scout Ambassador. Throughout my years as a Girl Scout, I have made significant impacts to my community and broader communities as well. Firstly, I have earned the Girl Scout Presidential Award on the Gold Level, a prestigious recognition bestowed upon individuals who have served more than 100 hours of volunteer work. This award is organized by the Corporation for National and Community Service, an agency of the U.S. federal government. Through volunteering, I developed a love for my communities and gained nuance on the impacts volunteers make on a daily basis. I volunteered at my local mosque’s food drive every Sunday where I packaged foods to distribute to lower income families who are not able to afford basic groceries. Furthermore, I interned at Muslim Community Support Services (MCSS), Central Texas Food Bank, and more. Additionally, I have earned the Girl Scout Silver Award, an award awarded to those who have created a sustainable community service project that addresses an issue in one’s community. I earned this valuable and prestigious award for addressing the stigma surrounding mental health in my community especially among teens and adults. I did this by creating a website that informs individuals of all the psychiatrists, therapists, etc that are available to one considering their specific location. Furthermore, I added definitions of various mental disorders, the difference between IOP and OP, and more. I was then able to have my website available on multiple company and organization websites, such as my local mosques’ website. My aspirations are deeply rooted in my unwavering commitment to enriching the community and advocating for women’s equal standing in society. To take my commitment to community service a step further, I founded a non-profit organization called Sukoon. Sukoon is dedicated to empowering young girls in India through education empowering each girl to break down barriers, inspire confidence. Overall, Sukoon aims to create a positive impact on the lives of young girls and their communities. In summary, my community involvement is driven by my deep passion towards making a singing act difference in my community and broader communities as well. I believe that by actively participating in these initiatives, I can contribute to building a more inclusive and supportive community. These experiences have not only enriched my life but have also reinforced my commitment to making a positive difference in the world

What is the biggest risk you ever took professionally and/or the biggest obstacle you’ve overcome?

The biggest obstacle I have had to overcome regards starting my non profit Sukoon. Raising awareness about the nonprofit’s mission and impact was a significant challenge for me. Because There are thousands of non-profit organizations, the competition for attention and resources makes it challenging for any single non-profit to stand out. Further, I have limited resources for marketing and promotion making it even harder for me. I overcame this by working all summer to promote and spread the influence and awareness on my program to help gain volunteers to push my mission across.

From where do you draw inspiration? Who have been your role models, mentors, etc?

My biggest source of inspiration would originate from my grandmother. My grandmother was born and raised in India to an impoverished village with a deep passion for medicine. From preschool to college, my grandmother ranked first in every class determined to become a doctor. However, this was not possible due to her financial circumstances and being one of six siblings. A few years later, my grandmother opened up a gas station with her husband and made it her life’s goal to give her daughters the best education. Upon hearing this story for the first time, it opened my eyes to how much privileges I have from going to school, learning everyday, and dreaming big and to become anything. From then on, I have made it my life’s goal to become an aspiring doctor just for her. Following the bloodline, my mom is another role model of mine. As a child psychiatrist, my mom has dedicated her career to the well-being and mental health of children. Her work involves understanding and addressing the unique emotional and psychological needs of young individuals and This level of expertise demonstrates her commitment to making a positive difference in the lives of children and families. Her level of commitment and love for her job helps children to achieve overall well-being. Furthermore, I dedicate my passion for gender equity to my mom. By actively advocating for gender equality and the empowerment of women and girls, she serves as a role model by showing me that they can pursue any career or life path they choose, irrespective of their gender. She inspires me by demonstrating expertise in her field, advocating for equality, emphasizing the value of education, embodying resilience, celebrating diversity, and promoting mental health awareness. Her influence goes beyond the home, impacting not only her family but also the community at large; something I aspire to do in the future.

What do you do to keep yourself sharp? What one thing have you done in the past year that has made a significant difference in your life?

In order to keep myself sharper, I value practices that prioritize my physical and mental health and give back to the community. I prioritize my well-being because  I believe a healthy mind and body are essential for peak performance. I started a regular meditation practice and daily journaling, which has significantly reduced stress and improved my focus. I have seen a profound impact on my personal life and productivity. Additionally, one thing that’s made a big difference in my life this past year is volunteering with a local charity. Not only does it provide a sense of fulfillment, but it’s also improved my leadership and organizational skills.

What one thing would you like to learn this year?

Studying various cultures, their traditions, and histories has been a dream of mine since forever. I believe doing so will broaden my horizons and foster nuanced cultural understanding. After taking AP Art History, studying cultural studies to analyze cultural texts and artifacts, which can include literature, film, television, music, art, fashion, advertisements, and digital media has been my goal. I hope to examine how these cultural products reflect and challenge social norms and study cultural flows, globalization, and cultural exchange. Doing so will equip me with critical thinking skills and a nuanced understanding of the complexities of culture and society.

Where do you see yourself in 5 years?

 My biggest goal, ambition, and aspiration for my future encompasses making a significant difference in the world, especially for women. Recently, I have discovered, through joining multiple clubs, organizations, and causes, that my leadership, strategic planning, and communication skills are exceptional. Furthermore, I am very passionate about advocating and supporting the fight for women’s equity. Fusing these qualities and traits together, I hope to ultimately establish a nonprofit organization that advocates for women’s rights and addresses gender inequality delving into the violated rights in various fields such as STEM-oriented careers. Starting a nonprofit organization gives me the opportunity to combine my foremost skills and passions, to allow me to shape the future and implement change towards women’s inequality.

What do you do for fun/relaxation/entertainment?

As a high schooler engrossed in the stresses of academic and individual validation, I find it significantly important to take a break and find options for fun. Some examples include reading, writing, and listening to music. Such activities divert my mind from stress factors and allow me to delve into a different world. For fun, I love to watch movies, hang out with friends and family, and travel. I am extremely grateful for my travel experiences, most recently South East Asia, as I get to go with my family and get the best of both worlds. When I get to the age where I can travel by myself, I would love to visit South Africa to see the experience the diverse and abundant wildlife.

What’s the best way for the readers of WE Magazine for Women to connect with you ?

To connect with me and stay updated on my work and insights, please don’t hesitate to contact me via social media! Additionally, if you are interested in starting a ConnectHER club at your high school feel free to reach out as well!  For a more personal and individual conversation, my Instagram handle is @aairah_salam. I’m excited to connect with the readers of WE Magazine for Women and engage in meaningful discussions about women’s empowerment and related topics. Once again, please don’t hesitate to reach out through any of these channels!