The first thing you notice about Hani Jacobson is her eyes, how they exude kindness and happiness. Since it is the time of COVID, once she sits down to chat in front of a camera and removes her mask, then you notice that her smile is equally warm and infectious.
And when you start talking with Hani, you understand how sincerely she values education, from her own nursing education she started at SCTCC to her dedication to keeping the St. Cloud community informed.
Her family moved to the United States about 30 years ago, after spending time in Kenyan refugee camps. While she’s lived in many major cities in the country, she’s lived in St. Cloud for 15 years and considers it her hometown.
After moving to the area, she was working as a medical interpreter and going to school to be a social worker. Her work as a medical interpreter made her take another look at a lifelong dream.
“As young kid, I always wanted to do something in the medical field, but I didn’t think that dream was achievable,” she said. Hani took a chance and came to SCTCC to see what her options were. After meeting with people in both the TRIO and Mosaic programs, she saw that the pathway to becoming a nurse was something she could actually believe in.
“This is where I started my nursing career,” Hani said of SCTCC.
There were some challenges along the way. She was a non-traditional student, working full time, and newly married with a baby. But she took her pre-requisite classes for nursing online and in the evening, as well as seeking out the right people to talk with. Finding the community to help her was what she always came back to.
Community has always been a part of her life. Hani’s been a community organizer since she moved to St. Cloud, helping out with interpreting and working with the school district. After getting her nursing degree in 2012, she went to work at CentraCare, then furthered her education at St. Cloud State University to get her bachelor’s degree.
“It’s so important to be a lifelong learner,” Hani explained, “especially in the health field. There’s always something to do next.”
In 2019, she transitioned to a job position at CentraCare as a Community Health Specialist. At the time, she and her team worked in the community to promote health and wellness, specifically things like cancer screenings, immunizations, and educating marginalized communities about general wellness. Then COVID happened.
“2020 was kind of crazy, to say the least,” Hani laughed.
At that point, her work became 100% COVID related. She knew there weren’t a lot of people in the Somali community being reached about COVID education, and a lot of what she saw was at the extremes. Some people were so consumed by fear that it literally stopped their life, and others didn’t take it seriously at all. Hani got to work.
Meanwhile, someone was paying attention to the work she was doing. She found out that someone had nominated her for the Virginia McKnight Binger UnSung Hero Award, which she was awarded in October. Hani was humbled and shocked.
“I was just doing my job like everyone else in health care. We were taking care of people; that’s what we do! But I am appreciative to know someone in our community saw value in the work we were doing. Kudos to my team,” she said.
The Unsung Hero Award is awarded to four Minnesotans in recognition of the impacts they have on Minnesota communities by the Minnesota Council of Nonprofits. She and three other women were awarded in 2020 for creating a positive impact in the state.
“And as if 2020 wasn’t crazy enough,” Hani decided to run for school board. With the work she was doing in the community, she witnessed a lot of families struggling with job insecurity, housing insecurity, illness (COVID was hitting the black community harder), and parents struggling with their children’s education.
“We need to bring a different perspective to the table. We need to bring these families’ voices to the table. What better way than to run for school board,” Hani emphasized.
Though she wasn’t elected, she made so many connections and met so many people, and now she’s serving on the LEAF (Local Education and Activities Foundation) 742 Board, the GREAT Theater Board, and she was appointed to the St. Cloud Housing and Redevelopment Authority Board of Commissioners by the mayor. She may have lost the school board election, but she won where it counted, finding more ways to bring different voices to the table.
“This is phenomenal. I never could have dreamt of this before 2020.”
Now that she’s at the table for these conversations, she continues educating others about marginalized communities in the US – she said that it’s surprising the number of people who truly don’t know what’s going on in these communities. Refugees are not only new to the country, but most have no formal education to get a well-paying job; these are just a couple of the challenges they face. Growing up, Hani experienced this, so she knows there are a lot of people in St. Cloud who live this life and need their voices heard, who also need to know that it’s possible to make a different life.
“What surprised me is the number of people making decisions (in St. Cloud) who don’t truly understand what it’s like to live that life and make it out of that life. It’s been nice bringing that voice to the table,” Hani explained.
It’s been a journey for Hani, from a refugee camp to community educator. When she was young, she didn’t see many people in her community going to college or reaching for something greater than they are. “I’m not like the stereotypical nurse. When you go to a hospital, you don’t see nurses who look like me.”
But taking a chance and starting at SCTCC set her health care career and current path in motion. Hani believes in education to not just reach your goals and dreams, but also as a catalyst to make a difference.
“My mom told me growing up that life is not measured by what you have and what you accomplished. It’s measured by how many lives you touch and how many people’s lives you change. My job has given me the opportunity to do that.”
It all starts with learning and finding the support of someone who believes in you, and Hani believes in the St. Cloud community.