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Nursing Student Upholds John Lewis' Legacy of Community Action

John Lewis and Marwo Sougue were born in different countries in different centuries. They grew up speaking different languages and practicing different religions. And yet their names are linked by a shared commitment to make the world a better place. 

Sougue is a second-year Nursing major at the University of Southern Maine. On Thursday, August 25, she accepted the John Lewis Youth Leadership Award at the Maine Secretary of State’s office in Augusta.

“It’s amazing. I don’t know how to say it, but it’s just so good. It feels great to be nominated for this,” Sougue said.

Her nomination came from Marina Chakmakchi, Global Talent Navigator with USM’s Office of Equity, Inclusion, and Community Impact. Sougue impressed Chakmakchi with her eagerness to build off her own success by helping other students succeed as a peer mentor, among many other activities.

“She is the voice of Maine's youth and New Mainers' youth in particular,” Chakmakchi said.

Sougue grew up in the east African country of Djibouti, which shares a border with Somalia and Ethiopia. Five years ago, her family left the only home she’d ever known to immigrate to the United States. Chicago was one of their first stops, but it wasn’t the right fit so they moved on. Something clicked when they got to Maine and they soon put down roots.

Sougue spoke very little English when she began attending Portland High School. Her language skills grew quickly in order to keep up with her ambition to get involved in her new community. That energy found an outlet in the school’s 4-H Club under the guidance of Dana Dotson, the Youth Development Professional for the UMaine Extension in Cumberland County.

The 4-H Club gave members a chance to tackle social issues through its True Leader Equity program. Sougue decided to address youth homelessness after learning that several of her classmates had nowhere to live. She organized a collection of basic household necessities and distributed them to fellow teens who would otherwise go without.

Sougue and Dotson teamed up again for a program designed to help teenagers make healthy choices. They noticed a segment of their audience wasn’t getting the message due to a language barrier. Fluent in Somali and French, Sougue stepped up to translate. Dotson showed her gratitude for all Sougue had done by attending the award ceremony.

“I think that you have a really strong camaraderie with the teens that you’ve worked with, and that leads to deeper trust with them and really strong connections with the teens because they’ve seen your pathway, and they’re inspired by that,” Dotson said to Sougue.

The Boys and Girls Club of Southern Maine also turned to Sougue for help. She lent her voice to an orientation video that switches between various languages to make the club more welcoming for new members from different cultural backgrounds. That project caught the attention of Sen. Susan Collins, who connected with Sougue on Zoom to thank her personally. 

Sougue has made several political connections in her effort to solidify social change into public policy. She saw the federal government at work on a trip to Washington, D.C. She spent time at the State House in Augusta as a legislative page.

Her knowledge of government and school systems converged in a project for the Finance Authority of Maine (FAME). Sougue sat on a panel that crafted strategies to help students maximize funding assistance for higher education. She knows the process well as a member of USM’s TRIO and Promise Scholarship programs, which aid first-generation college students.

Sougue learned to speak up for herself at an early age having grown up in a household with eight siblings. Two of her brothers attended her award ceremony. As much as she appreciated their support, she reserved her highest praise for another family member.

“Here is my beloved mom. She is amazing,” Sougue said. “I wouldn’t have done anything without her. She has given me the ability to be a go-getter, just keep going.”

Throughout the award ceremony, Sougue shared the spotlight with her mother, Mariam. They stood together in every group photo and ate lunch side-by-side, with Sougue providing constant translation of all that was said into their native Somali tongue.

Sougue’s extended family and guests crowded into the Secretary of State’s office for the formal presentation. With the state seal hanging on the wall behind them, Secretary Shenna Bellows offered a few words of congratulations before handing off the crystalline award to Sougue.

The mood turned casual as the party shifted into a conference room for lunch. Even the food touted Sougue’s achievement with her name written in frosting on the cookies that were served up for dessert.

Bellows led the conversation between bites. Among the topics discussed, she asked if Sougue would like to stay in Maine to build her career. “Forever” was Sougue’s emphatic answer.

“Maine needs young people like Marwo to pave the way for the next generation and strengthen our state,” Bellows said. “Democracy depends on leaders of every age standing up for community and engagement and helping those who are less fortunate.”

The award is named after John Lewis. He rose to national prominence in the 1950s and ‘60s as a leader in the civil rights movement. Georgia elected him to Congress in 1987 and he held the seat until his death in 2020.

To honor his memory, the National Association of Secretaries of States (NASS) created the John Lewis Leadership Award in 2021. It’s open to nominees up to 25 years old. They’re judged on a record of leadership, social justice, and community involvement. Each of the 50 Secretaries of State choose one winner each year. Sougue is only the second Mainer to win.

Success hasn’t tempered Sougue’s determination to help her community, even if it means getting her own hands dirty. The day before receiving her award, she volunteered for clean-up duty at the local Ronald McDonald House which provides parents a place to stay while their children are in the hospital.

“Whether it’s community service, whether it’s volunteering, whether it’s doing an hour of peer tutoring with someone who’s younger than me, I think I’ll just keep doing that,” Sougue said. “Whether I’m a nurse, even if I get the highest position, I will keep doing that.”

Spare time is harder to find with the start of the fall semester as Sougue resumes a full course load in USM’s Nursing program. The busy campus also provides more opportunities for activism with likeminded classmates. Sougue plans to be in the thick of it.