Taking the World by Storm: Introducing Four of the 2022–23 Obama Foundation Scholars

The Obama Foundation gives its chosen scholars educational support to accelerate individual projects addressing issues within different communities.


Harris School of Public Policy

Christine Goggins (top left), Deqa Aden (top right), Heena Mohammed (bottom left), and Nishit Shukla (bottom right) are among the 2022–23 Obama Foundation Scholars.

By Casey Kim

The University and the Obama Foundation announced the 2022–23 class of UChicago Obama Foundation Scholars on August 30. The cohort comprises 18 students from the Harris School of Public Policy; Booth School of Business; and the Crown Family School of Social Work, Policy, and Practice. The students will have access to networking opportunities, leadership development programming, and educational support.

The program selects students in their final year of study at the three UChicago professional schools. Over the course of a year, scholars will equip themselves with the proper tools to improve communities around the world.

Four Obama Foundation Scholars from Harris and Crown spoke with The Maroon about their endeavors and how the Obama Foundation has guided their efforts to create change.

Christine Goggins (Crown Family School of Social Work, Policy, and Practice)

Chicago resident Christine Goggins is a lead violence recovery specialist at UChicago Medicine and clinical social work A.M. student with a focus on trauma response. She hopes to utilize the Obama Foundation’s resources to provide crisis intervention care to victims and families of intentional violence.

“I get to work with so many people across the world,” Goggins said. “We’re getting to talk to amazing thinkers, amazing people in different fields. What I like about the Obama Foundation is that we look at our problems across different sectors and its emphasis on the change narrative.”

Goggins has wanted to work in the spheres of social services and violence prevention ever since she lost her friend Blair Holt to gun violence in 2007. But once she entered the workforce, Goggins developed an interest in housing insecurity.

“Because I worked with a lot of at-risk populations, I began to think about how important housing was. If you don’t have that foundational piece of housing, all of the other additions won’t stick. For example, if I give you a referral to an amazing therapist but you don’t know where you’re going to lay your head at night, how would you make it to any of those therapy sessions?”

In her Obama Foundation project, Goggins is focusing on addressing housing insecurity as a critical solution to gun violence. She also discussed the importance of recognizing institutional racism as a key factor behind violence in Chicago.

“People don’t readily think of [structural racism] when they see the violence here,” Goggins said. “They see it as very concentrated in specific areas. And yes, there is a high prevalence of violence, but what is often lost upon people is the very dark nature of how this city was founded in general. So in light of what I want to do, and my goals, I want to heal some of that structural racism and take a very holistic approach to it.”

Goggins also shared her excitement about being part of the Obamas’ legacy. The Obama Foundation was started by Barack and Michelle Obama in 2014 as a nonprofit organization. In addition to operating the scholarship program, it oversees the Barack Obama Presidential Center and the My Brother’s Keeper Alliance.

“Being a Black woman from the South Side of Chicago, I’ve always been inspired by Michelle Obama,” Goggins said. “To be a part of her legacy at UChicago Med, and also remembering President Barack Obama’s campaign committed to community and change, I knew that the Obama Foundation Scholars program was aligned with my values already.”

Deqa Aden (Harris School of Public Policy)

Deqa Aden, who is pursuing her master of public policy degree (M.P.P.) with two certificates in international policy and development and markets and regulation, hopes to build a holistic advocacy center for victims of gender-based violence in Somaliland, a breakaway state considered internationally to be part of Somalia. The center would provide victims access to legal services as well as medical and psychosocial treatments.

Though currently still in development, the advocacy center has been a passion project of Aden’s since her days working as a manager of a business incubator in Somaliland. She is hopeful that the Obama Foundation can help bring it to life.

“I just saw a big gap when it comes to services that support victims of [gender-based violence],” Aden said. “Watching the stories from the news and even just hearing from other people, I was frustrated that there was a lack of accountability. Also, there are really no holistic services for these people to have transformative healing.”

In addition to the educational component of the program, which requires scholars to partake in weekly classes and leadership training, the extensive network of leaders has proven invaluable, Aden said.

“When you meet people who are so committed to service and impact, they really do inspire you,” Aden said. “Some of our scholars in the program already are running their own nonprofits. I get to learn from them, learn what they did differently, and how to build sustainable projects. I’m very lucky that my project is in the idea stage because I just have so many connections and people to advise and guide me.”

After graduating from Grinnell College in 2018 with a double major in political science and psychology, Aden worked at the World Bank Group’s Finance, Competitiveness, and Innovation Global Practice in Washington, D.C. In 2020, she moved back to Somaliland and became a manager at HarHub, a business incubator that provides access to finance to vulnerable youth and women.

Aden said that seeing the challenges women face on a daily basis inspired the vision behind her project.

“Women across the world, they’re just still proving who they are as human beings,” Aden said. “You see women struggling at the corporate level, you see women constantly struggling within their own family, within their own communities. So even though the issues are particular to my country, it is a problem that’s more predominant. Women are still suffering across the world. They are still trying to find their own freedom, liberty, and voice.”

Heena Mohammed (Harris School of Public Policy)

Unlike the majority of the students at the Harris School, who tend to have fewer than five years of work experience, Heena Mohammed has eight. Before matriculating, she served as deputy head of the police powers unit at the UK Home Office in London, senior private secretary to the British minister of state for policing and the fire service, and policy advisor for the British government. Her extensive political work allowed her to examine the racial disparities in policing powers and the way they are used, she said.

Until recently, Mohammed, a graduate of the University of Manchester, also worked as a graduate assistant at the Institute of Politics, where she was able to engage directly with incarcerated people. Mohammed said that she was motivated to come to Chicago in order to study the space of police powers and criminal justice at an academically credible institution.

“If you want to study race or crime policing in an urban setting, for me, Chicago is the place to do that,” Mohammed said. “There’s so much data in this city, and there’s also so many challenges. Because there have been so many historical challenges in the city, people are really forced to be a lot more creative, whether that’s on the academic and intellectual side or whether that’s the wealth of community organizing in that city. I’ve never seen anything like it.”

Mohammed’s Obama Foundation–sponsored project envisions bringing the city government closer to the nonprofit sector, the private sector, and the public sector. She hopes to improve community-based solutions and considers them essential to eliminating racial disparities in crime and law enforcement policy in Chicago.

“What’s fascinating to me is that they don’t talk to each other and there’s nobody that’s being the intermediary,” she said. “The one thing that we have so much work in in the South Side and West Side of Chicago is people who know their communities and do things on a block-by-block level.”

Mohammed highlighted experiences at Harris that allowed her to learn from and alongside her peers.

“I remember that first day, we were all like, ‘I think I found my people,’” she said, “and we really came out of it going, ‘This is the kind of culture and experience I wanted when it came to grad school.’”

Nishit Shukla (Harris School of Public Policy)

After graduating from the Manipal Institute of Technology in 2015 with a bachelor of engineering in mechatronics, Nishit Shukla returned home to India to work as a full-time teacher in disadvantaged communities in the Maharashtra city of Pune. For four years, he worked with nonprofit Teach for India as a fellow and later as a program manager. During his time as a teacher, Shukla was inspired to work on climate change solutions after witnessing how floods and droughts disproportionately affected the communities he served.

“In one particular year, the entire houses of my students would be inundated with water, and the next year, the same houses would be having severe water crisis issues,” Shukla said. “That kind of really forced me to look at climate change from a broader perspective, a broader lens. And that’s how the journey began.”

Shukla started by examining the role of education in solving climate issues at the community level. In 2017, he initiated the Unprint Challenge, a program that offered high school students the tools and experiences to launch their own social entrepreneurship initiatives. However, he realized that while education played an important role in creating long-term change, it could not address immediate concerns.

In 2019, Shukla joined the Pune International Center, where he conducted research on economic development and climate change policy. He also co-authored a policy roadmap to make the city of Pune, with a population of 5 million people, carbon-neutral by 2030.

He was admitted to Harris in 2020 but deferred his starting date a year. In the interim, he co-founded ReHive, an investment platform for promising climate adaptation startups in India that combat urgent climate issues. With the help of the Obama Foundation, Shukla is working to expand this project.

“The biggest strength of the foundation is the people,” he said. “Just having conversations with them, understanding their journey and their challenges and learning how they overcome their challenges, has been a huge inspiration for me because working on your own startup can be a lonely journey.”