Begum was embarrassed to admit she dropped out of high school a few months into her sophomore year and achieved her GED only by the push of foster parents.
“I had no answer, but I didn’t want to lie to him,” said Begum, 33.
Begum is no longer embarrassed. She graduated Friday from South Puget Sound Community College with an Associate of Arts degree, alongside 1,500 of her peers.
The nontraditional student left the college with more than a degree. She found a way to deal with her past as a survivor of human trafficking.
Begum and eight of her family members were taken to the United States from Bangladesh when she was young.
“They were looking for families who were extremely poor, promised them the world; the American dream,” Begum said.
Her family bounced from country to country before being brought to a ranch in Oakville. None of them knew how to speak English, read or write. They were never allowed to leave the ranch, where they were forced to work and were sexually abused.
They were enslaved.
“It definitely wasn’t the American dream; it was like the American nightmare,” Begum said.
One of her cousins committed suicide, alerting the authorities to what was going on at the ranch.
The trafficker was sentenced to four years but served only 18 months, Begum said.
“Nobody knew what to do with us,” Begum said.
The family was taken to a domestic violence shelter in Hoquiam. Some were eventually deported to Bangladesh, while Begum’s foster parents fought to keep her in the states and helped her get a GED from SPSCC in the late ’90s.
She worked 14 years in marketing and corporate staffing and as an independent insurance agent. She closed the door on her past and forged on to an uncertain future.
After being asked about her education by her son, and realizing that many jobs require a four-year degree, Begum worked up the courage to return to school.
While at SPSCC, she enrolled in a public speaking class that changed her life.
“I realized I had a voice and I had a gift to be able to empower people and be a leader,” Begum said. “I started pursuing wanting to be a professional public speaker on social justice issues.”
She reopened the door on her past and now uses her experiences to help others.
Begum has spoken to several college and church groups, sharing her story and advocating for other survivors. She joined student government and served as student body president.
She was packing up her office Friday morning, making room for the next president and getting ready to move on with her educational career.
While she graduated Friday, Begum still has some credits to finish up this summer.
Begum says her next plan is to enroll at The Evergreen State College, where she will pursue a degree in communications and human rights.
“She is not afraid to just go and network with people to get things done,” said Eileen Yoshina, director of SPSCC’s Diversity and Equity Center. “She has worked with (Attorney General) Rob McKenna and worked with local law enforcement agencies and is not intimidated by things like that.”
Begum’s hope is to one day speak to schools, businesses and nonprofits about human trafficking, social justice and race.
“I think human trafficking is the main blood flow in me,” she said. “That drives me because I have come to the realization that yes, I was internationally trafficked to America, but with my research and my experience and the survivors I volunteer and mentor with, it’s in our backyard. It’s time to wake up and realize that.”email@example.com