Southern senior known for raising student voice seeks to be a role model

With a smile that teachers say lights up hallways, Dara Elkanah hopes to inspire young students of color and pursue a career in education.

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 the class of 2022 graduates.

During her four years at South Salem High School, Dara Elkanah starred in a student-made video promoting mental health, became 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 courses.

For Elkanah, 18, a thread connects her activities.

“Student voices – making sure students in the school are heard,” she said.

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

“You perceive that she is good about herself. 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 the text “Be You.”

She often 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.

“His little sister and my daughter were talking 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 recall 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 worked with the school district’s Unified Curriculum, which includes drama, sports, and other activities that bring together students with and without disabilities.

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 had a role this spring in a production of “Snew White,” a play about Snow White.

“I saw it on stage and it was just like a circle time for me, because it was just amazing,” she said. “I had never seen students with disabilities on stage 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 to South Salem High School on Oct. 21, 2021. (Amanda Loman/Salem Reporter)

Elkanah was born in Nigeria and arrived in the United States with her parents before her second birthday. She started elementary school in Salem.

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

Elkanah said it was sometimes difficult to be one of the few black students in school, and often the only one in her class. It came up in a history class earlier in high school, she said.

“We talked mainly about European history. Whenever the subject touched on slavery, I was normally the only black person in the class and people looked at me, and I just didn’t like being in a history class. And so I didn’t end up doing history (international baccalaureate) this year,” she said.

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

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

Elkanah plans to study preschool education and developmental psychology.

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

She was accepted to Oregon State University on a full scholarship through the Ford Family Foundation, but hopes to attend Howard University, a historically black university in Washington DC.

By the first week of June, she had secured almost the full cost of scholarships and financial aid, but was still $8,000 short and had several more applications pending.

Lara Tiffin, manager of South, said she was confident Elkanah would be able to earn the remainder.

“It is guaranteed to have a positive impact on a campus. So any college that’s lucky enough to get her accepted. I think they’ll find out she’s a gem,” Tiffin said.

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

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Rebecca R. Santistevan