When Emad Shahnoushi Foroushani walked across the stage at Palisade High School's graduation Monday night, he did so as class valedictorian, a passionate political and social activist and as the only Iranian- and Muslim-American among his 219 graduating peers.

Emad's achievements go beyond the International Baccalaureate program at Palisade — he's also a member of the national Muslim Youth Leadership Council, president of local nonprofit Help Light the Night, and a founding member of Western Colorado Days of Action.

His successes happened in the context of navigating between two cultures, two languages and the challenges that come with being a first-generation immigrant.

"It's really hard to live bi-culturally and maintain a strong sense of self-identity," he said. "That you're not necessarily stuck between two worlds, but you're a beautiful mix of both."

Since he moved to the United States from his home in Esfahan, Iran, as a 6-year-old, Emad has had to learn about basic expectations and cultural customs on the fly, from filling out school paperwork to realizing he was supposed to send out announcements for graduation.

"I think the most difficult part throughout my experience is having to really do a lot of things on my own and figure them out on my own," he said.

Palisade High School teacher Ann Conaway said she has seen Emad take his passion and unique perspective and focus it onto issues that he cares about.

"When he's here he feels like he's defending Iran and when he's in Iran he feels like he's defending the United States. He's learned from a very young age to see multiple sides to a story, and he also wants to fix everything yesterday," she said.

Often when Emad meets someone new in the Grand Valley, he's the first Muslim or Iranian that person has ever met. Despite the frustrations that sometimes arise from preconceived notions or prejudices, Emad said he's glad he grew up in a small community.

"Had I been in a very large, urban environment, I don't think I would have been forced to push myself to be in spaces that I'm not as comfortable in," he said. "Being the only one like me has given me the opportunity to control my own narrative."

Soon, that narrative will take him to Columbia University to study political economy and Middle Eastern studies in a pre-law track.

As he prepares for the next chapter, Emad said the intricate support network at school and at home is what he will remember the most.

"My parents are my biggest supporters, my biggest fans and my biggest sources of help," he said. "They're a fundamental aspect of who I am and the fact that they've sacrificed so much of their lives for me to have mine — that's really impactful, and I want to recognize and appreciate that privilege that so many people do not have."

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