When Noureen Badwi was a student at Dumbarton Middle School, she found that parts of the dress code were outdated.
“The way that it was phrased was kind of derogatory, and the way that they do the presentation just wasn’t very 21st century,” Badwi said. "A lot of it was, like, geared toward women, like girls need to cover up.”
So Badwi, now 16 and a rising junior at Towson High School, did something about it.
She rallied other students active in student government and approached the SGA adviser, Kayla Denmyer-Prenger. The students made pros and cons lists, studied county and school policies and examined Dumbarton’s changing student population.
Badwi presented their proposal to the school administration — and they changed the dress code to exactly what the students wanted, she said.
“That was my first major policy victory,” Badwi said, slightly tongue-in-cheek. But from there, the teenager has had her share of political victories — and this summer, she was sworn in as this year’s student member of the Maryland Board of Education.
In her new role, Badwi, of West Towson, will represent the nearly 900,000 students enrolled in Maryland schools on the board.
“It’s definitely, you know, a big task,” Badwi said in an interview in early July. “I think my biggest goal, if I had one, would be to really just get more students engaged in the process ... and then not only to try to represent them the best way I can, but also have them represent their own voice.”
The Maryland Board of Education, which sets rules and regulations for Maryland public schools, has 11 regular members and one student member, all appointed by the governor. The student member is chosen from a list of two nominees presented by the Maryland Association of Student Councils.
The student member, who must be a student at a public school, has a vote on all issues except disciplinary, personnel and appeals matters.
Though only 16, Badwi has a wealth of experience in student government under her belt.
At Dumbarton, she pushed to create the first student liaison to the PTSA, then was selected for the position. Then in her freshman year of high school, she served as the public relations director in the Baltimore County Student Council, and the chief of staff for the Maryland Association of Student Councils — the youngest person ever to hold that position.
In her sophomore year, Badwi was selected to serve on the Maryland Youth Advisory Council, then was elected by the council to serve as its vice chair. She also served as state legislative affairs coordinator for the Association of Student Councils.
Family and mentors say Badwi is motivated and focused beyond her years.
“She’s very focused and she’s very driven,” said Christine Drushel Williams, adviser to the Maryland Youth Advisory Council. “She has a good sense of both what is important to her, but also has the ability to have empathy for other people’s situations and to be able to raise up the experience of other people even though they might be different from her.”
On her campaign website, Badwi said her top priorities include addressing the school-to-prison pipeline, advocating for students in foster care and those with disabilities, and closing achievement gaps for students of color and from lower-income families. She also wants to improve financial literacy, encourage students to register to vote and eliminate abstinence-only sex education.
“She wants to change the universe, to do things on a large scale, which is very interesting and intriguing," said Dina El Mahdy, Badwi’s mother. “Not everyone has this capability or this vision.”
Two years from college, Badwi has big — and specific — dreams. She wants to be an attorney in Manhattan, prosecuting white-collar crime. And then, eventually, she wants to run for public office.
This summer, Badwi is taking classes at Towson University to get a jump-start on required credits. In her spare time, she paints.
Born in Cairo, Egypt (“I can’t run for president, unfortunately,” she noted), Badwi and her twin brother Mohamed arrived in the United States at 3 years old because El Mahdy was pursuing her Ph.D. They lived in Knoxville, Tennessee, and then Richmond, Virginia, until settling in Maryland so El Mahdy could take a job at Morgan State University, where she is now an associate professor of accounting.
In middle school, Badwi was hard-working and passionate about student government, said Denmyer-Prenger, the SGA adviser.
“She put in a lot of time, effort and hard work, but she was willing to put it in and do what needed to be done,” Denmyer-Prenger said, calling Badwi an “old soul.”
Badwi faced her own educational challenge in elementary school in Richmond when she was placed in the class for English-language learners, even though she said English was her first language — she still is not sure why.
Being placed in a classroom where she was not being challenged was “a bummer,” Badwi said, adding later, “I hated every second.” But her mother said the young Badwi used the time to help other students learn English and acted as a leader in her classroom.
“She turned her frustration, that she doesn’t belong to this place, into like a leadership role,” El Mahdy said.
Badwi said that experience drove her to join student council, to “give people a voice that didn’t have one.”
Now a student in Towson High School’s Law and Public Policy Program, Badwi said that opportunity has highlighted for her the need to make sure others have similar access to quality education options.
“I have opportunities everywhere, which I love about Towson, but it also makes me a little bit sad, because there’s a lot of areas that don’t have that at all,” Badwi said.
One major issue Badwi wants to work on is excessive disciplining of students of color. She said she is currently researching possible ways to address the school-to-prison pipeline and look critically at the ways Maryland schools discipline black and brown students.
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“I think education should be an equalizer, not something that makes disparities even larger,” Badwi said