South senior known for uplifting student voices seeks to be role model

Dara Elkanah, South Salem High School Class of 2022, with her senior year backpack (Rachel Alexander/Salem Reporter)

This article is part of a series of profiles of Class of 2022 graduates.

In her four years at South Salem High School, Dara Elkanah has starred in a student-made video promoting mental health, become a leader in a school program promoting friendships between students with and without disabilities, and worked to encourage students of color to take more advanced classes.

For Elkanah, 18, one thread ties her activities together.

“Student voice – making sure the students at the school are being heard,” she said.

Elkanah has a wide, infectious smile and an easy self-confidence teachers say radiates through South’s halls. When she’s having a bad day, she still makes a point of being positive and trying to encourage others.

“You perceive that she’s comfortable in her own skin. She is who she is and she’s proud of it,” said Tory Carey, her teacher for AVID, a college and career readiness program.

For her senior year, she got herself a new school backpack, featuring a smiling girl surrounded by rainbow butterflies and a shooting star, with text reading “Be You.”

She frequently makes her teachers laugh and always had her camera on during online classes, Carey said, often with her five-year-old sister in the background.

“Her little sister and my daughter would talk to each other,” Carey said.

Elkanah starred in a district video in the spring explaining the end of the schoolwide mask mandate. 

Carey and fellow program teacher Sarah Keck recalled playing the video in class over Elkanah’s objections. Not wanting to see her face on video, she took a drastic step.

“Dara hid under a desk,” Carey said, as she and Keck laughed. They took a photo, which made the AVID program’s end-of-year slideshow.

Elkanah has worked with the school district’s Unified program, which includes theater, sports and other activities bringing students with and without disabilities together.

She said it was a passion of hers in part because of her younger brother, who has cerebral palsy. He’s now a freshman at South and played a role this spring in a production of “Snew White,” a play on Snow White.

“I saw him on the stage and it was just this like circle moment for me, because it was just amazing,” she said. “I’ve never seen students with disabilities up on a stage performing before, and I was like, ‘My brother could be one of those students.’ And now he is.”

Student Dara Elkanah cuts the ribbon during a ribbon-cutting ceremony for the new addition at South Salem High School on Oct. 21, 2021. (Amanda Loman/Salem Reporter)

Elkanah was born in Nigeria and came to the U.S. with her parents before her second birthday. She began elementary school in Salem.

She’s served on the school district’s equity committee and said she’s enjoyed learning about educational disparities among groups of students and what the district is doing to correct them. 

Elkanah said at times it’s been challenging being one of the few Black students in school, and often the only one in her class. That came up in a history class earlier in high school, she said.

“We talked about predominantly European history. Whenever the topic came to slavery, I was normally the only Black person in the class and people would look at me, and I just didn’t like being in a history class. And so I didn’t end up doing (International Baccalaureate) history this year,” she said.

But she said learning that it’s common for students of color to feel they don’t belong in more advanced classes has helped her be more confident enrolling in advanced classes.

“(Students of color) tend to not be encouraged to pursue harder classes or classes with a more … accelerated curriculum because of things that they’ve been told or things like (their) own personal beliefs that, ‘Oh, I’m not smart enough to sign up for those classes,’” she said. “Learning about those patterns and being able to identify that I can break them was an uplifting moment for me.”

Elkanah plans to study early education and developmental psychology. 

She hopes to work with children in early education and eventually education administration, being a role model for other students of color who can see their own experiences in her.

She’s been accepted to Oregon State University on a full ride scholarship through the Ford Family Foundation, but hopes to attend Howard University, a historically Black university in Washington D.C.

As of the first week in June, she’d secured nearly the full cost in scholarships and financial aid, but was still short $8,000 with several more applications pending.

Lara Tiffin, South’s principal, said she’s confident Elkanah will be able to earn the rest.

“She will, guaranteed, impact a campus in a positive way. So any college that’s lucky enough to get her to accept them. I think they will find out she’s a gem,” Tiffin said.

Contact reporter Rachel Alexander: [email protected] or 503-575-1241.

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