When Ellen DeGeneres began a segment of her TV show by reading an audience member's letter -- describing her immigration from Sudan to Maine as a 12-year-old girl -- USM's Ekhlas Ahmed bent over and buried her face in her hands.
"I was going to scream so loudly, but I couldn't," Ahmed said.
Moments later, DeGeneres ushered her onto the stage, interviewed her and presented her with a check for $22,000, enough to erase her student loans.
"It was like a dream that came true," said Ahmed, who graduated in May 2015 with a sociology degree and is currently taking graduate courses at USM in hopes of pursuing her Master's degree in USM's Extended Teacher Education Program.
"Nobody told me I was going to be on the show," she said. "I was shocked."
DeGeneres' program flew her to Los Angeles and put her up in a hotel a few minutes from the show's Burbank studio. Ahmed thought it was a response to the "Celebrating Africa" calendar she and her students at Portland's Casco Bay High School crafted and sent to DeGeneres in January with the note, "I hope this brings a smile to your face."
But it was so much more.
DeGeneres began by saying, "Every once in awhile, a story finds its way to me that puts everything into perspective."
The letter, which Ahmed had written about a year ago, described her arrival in Maine at 12, having fled the genocide occurring in her homeland. And while she worked hard in school to learn English, she used the Ellen Show to instruct her after school by writing down what she heard on the cheery program.
"It was a beautiful letter," DeGeneres said. She called Ahmed's story "inspiring."
While going to school herself, Ahmed currently works as an AmeriCorps advisor with English language learners at Casco Bay High School and coordinates the school's "Make It Happen!" program, which helps prepare multilingual students prepare for college.
The money to pay off her loans was extraordinary, she said.
"It's such a relief," Ahmed said. "Any debt, for me, feels like something that's on my shoulders. Now I don't have to worry about that. It was very generous and very nice of her."
And the sudden rush of notoriety is overwhelming, she said in a phone interview from Los Angeles.
The program was recorded on Feb, 15 and aired the following afternoon. One day later, the YouTube clip of her appearance on the show had 390,000 views.
A show worker called her to let her know that the story was trending on YouTube, Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.
"I am refusing to look at my Facebook page because the last time I looked I had over 200 notifications," Ahmed said.
"I think, 'OK, I am just going to go to sleep because this is a dream I don't want to wake up from," she said.
Read the Portland Press Herald story by writer Dennis Hoey here.