How an Iowa State student overcame adversity to find her passion


Leah Fifi models a dress she made and designed herself, more of her designs can be found at her website Bija Couture.

Katherine Kealey

Like any student right now, Leah Fifi is navigating through the American education system during a pandemic, a recession and a systemic racial revolution.

Fifi, a senior studying apparel, merchandising and design at Iowa State, makes the most out of what she describes as “the chaos,” but there are some aspects to hybrid learning she appreciates. Being able to replay recorded lectures is much more efficient for her already busy schedule, opposed to sitting in a class and having to remember everything a teacher says.

Throughout Fifi’s life, she has always had to adjust and work hard. Originally from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Fifi left as a refugee to Tanzania where she and her family lived for eight years in a refugee camp. Most people Fifi met in the camps, for many different reasons, were not with their family.

“I came [to the United States] with all my family and we were all good, so living here together is like a blessing,” Fifi said. “Having them in my life became easier because I wouldn’t have done it myself I was young, I didn’t understand what I was doing. I didn’t even know how to speak English, and they helped a lot with everything. They just did what family had to do.”

Prior to studying at Iowa State, Fifi attended Kirkwood University, where she discovered she wanted to begin studying apparel and fashion merchandise, but to complete the program, Fifi would have had to commute between Iowa City and Cedar Rapids Monday through Friday.

Fifi wanted to attend Iowa State but thought she had to complete her associate degree at Kirkwood before transferring. It wasn’t until she did the research herself that she discovered she didn’t need to.

“All of my advisers used to tell me, ‘You have to take these in order to transfer,’ so I was just there doing all that, and I was feeling like I wasn’t doing anything because my calling was really to sew garments,” Fifi said.

She contacted people she knew in her major to get advice about transferring. Fifi said it made her mad, at the time, having to do everything on her own, but now, looking back, she is proud of herself. But this also wasn’t anything new for her.

“Living here wasn’t easy; I had to always figure out stuff myself,” Fifi said. “If I don’t know stuff, especially the way to navigate the system like learning English, classes, applying for classes, applying for jobs, all that, I have to use Google to figure out stuff.”

On top of knowing English, Fifi is fluent in Kiswahili, or Swahili, and Kiifuliru — a language from her father’s tribe. She can also understand Kirundi and some French. Fifi used to have to translate everything she didn’t know, which became very time consuming for her on top of her coursework. 

“It wasn’t easy, but you just have to figure stuff out,” Fifi said.

Even though it was difficult, Fifi continued to teach herself and has since finished the majority of her core classes, now leaving her time to focus on her degree. Fifi’s oldest brother has played a role in her passion to sew.

“Once you are in school, you always have to have a goal for your life,” Fifi said.

Her brother was a designer with a small business while they were in Tanzania. She would stay and work with him and eventually became inspired by the work.

After Fifi graduates, she said she wants to open her own boutique and sell her products. She is inspired by evening gowns and dresses.

“Most of the classes that I have been attending, it is a miracle when I see a person who looks like me, seeing a girl or guy who looks like me,” Fifi said. “It’s amazing, but most of my classes I am by myself, alone. When I got to Iowa State, I found a lot of mixed people of different cultures, and that was one of my happiest moments at Iowa State because I have a few migrant students in classes who also speak different languages, and I love that about Iowa State.”

Fifi’s experiences at Iowa State have been mostly positive, but there have been challenges she has faced throughout her pursuit of education that her peers have not.

“I feel like I have come a long way, but for them, it is just something they are used to,” Fifi said. “I have to learn everything from scratch. In class, we have things like Illustrator and Photoshop, [my peers] are quick to adapt to it because they were using it before I got here. I had to adapt to social media. Just using technology, I feel like I have to spend more time on that than they do.”

Fifi said this is about the only thing that differentiates her from her peers at Iowa State. 

“It is not right, everybody should be equal and everybody should have the same rights,” Fifi said. “Life shouldn’t be hard for anyone, like finding jobs for different cultures or a different race, it shouldn’t be like that. Everybody should have their equal rights as a human being. For me seeing all this stuff on social media, I always feel like I need to stop searching the media because it’s just a headache, you know? Like, why would someone do this?”

After all the hurdles Fifi has overcome, there has been one thing that has gotten her through it all, and it’s her family.

“Family is everything, you know,” Fifi said. “They keep giving hope that all this one day will be gone and done. In life, there is hope, and if you keep believing, you will see it. So family just keeps telling me that one day we will get out of this mess, we will get somewhere better. … That is what keeps me going.”