Shay lashgari '24
Shay Lashgari ’24. Photo: Nancy L. Ford

Shay Lashgari ’24 often says that the things she cares about most are basic human rights and needs — two things that influenced both her probable major and the work she did during gap years before enrolling at Hamilton this fall.

For want of basic human rights, she and her mother left their home in Iran when Lashgari was 12 to struggle through five years of life in refugee camps in Turkey. They were resettled in Syracuse, N.Y., then moved to Los Angeles when Lashgari was 15.

“For me, whatever I’ve done, whether it’s been the after-school programs, or the research, or even the desire to go to college, [it] was just being able to make the system better so more people could access their basic human needs and rights,” she said.

What Hamilton made me feel like was that I could come as who I was and pursue whatever I wanted to pursue and be loved for exactly that.

Lashgari did well in high school in LA, mastering her new language, and was accepted at the University of California, Berkeley, but wasn’t yet ready for more classroom study. She had questions she couldn’t shake about the refugee identity in the U.S.

“What is it like?” she asked. “And what enabled me to be able to succeed? And what would enable other people to be able to succeed and transcend these educational gaps and this sense of foreignness?”

She talked about those questions with the friends she’d maintained in Syracuse, and after the conversations, Lashgari decided her first home in the U.S. was the best place to explore answers during a gap year. She landed an apprenticeship at a Syracuse nonprofit that provided new Americans with the kind of support she wished she and her mom had had. The position provided room and board but no pay, but Lashgari had saved money from a high school internship, and she was willing to work multiple paying jobs to make the apprenticeship work.

Toward the end of that position, Lashgari, who is a forger of mentors and networks, received an offer from the census coordinator for the Syracuse mayor’s office: Would she like an internship working to encourage new Americans to participate in the 2020 census? The community was very difficult to reach, and her personal experience would be an asset.

After doing a little research, Lashgari concluded that the census was a huge determinant in meeting basic human rights — through schooling, housing, hospitals, all the things funded based on population counts. “For me to find out that there is an undercount for communities of color for new Americans, for children under 5, for seniors, it was mind boggling,” she said.

Her major project was helping to successfully implement an idea she’d had to reach new Americans through a video that featured local refugees who were now successfully established and well known in the community.

“Shay brought a perspective as a multilingual global citizen that was an asset to this work,” said Ruthnie Angrand, who supervised marketing for Syracuse during the census.

When the pandemic brought an early end to the census internship, Lashgari rustled up funding that enabled her to work for a refugee resettlement agency — the same one that had once helped her and her mom.

As Lashgari’s gap years unfolded, she realized she wanted to stay in Central New York for college and discovered Hamilton through a Google search. She’d loved the musical about the immigrant founding father who rose from poverty, and Hamilton sounded like a place where she would fit in. When she came upon research about refugees that had been done by Erol Balkan, Hamilton’s Leonard C. Ferguson Professor of Economics, she was inspired to email him, and he responded. Later he would become her advisor.

When she decided to reach for Hamilton, Syracuse Mayor Ben Walsh wrote Lashgari a letter of recommendation. “What Hamilton made me feel like was that I could come as who I was and pursue whatever I wanted to pursue and be loved and cared for for exactly that,” she said. “And my experiences have not been short of that — it’s been better than what I expected it to be, so I’m incredibly grateful and blessed to be here.”

Lashgari suspects that she’ll major in economics. One of her goals? “Understanding how economic growth could increase people’s welfare and how economic growth and inclusion and empowerment are so vital to accessing basic human needs,” she said.

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