Nasteho Youssouf spoke two languages – French and Somali – when her family arrived in Portland in 2010. Though she was born in Ohio, she grew up in Djibouti, a tiny seaside country on the Horn of Africa, bounded by Eritrea, Ethiopia and Somalia.

Her parents had returned to Djibouti when she was just a year old. Eight years later she found herself back in the United States, a fifth-grader struggling to connect and understand a whole new language and culture.

“The first few years were pretty difficult,” said Youssouf, 17. “I struggled with a language barrier. I wouldn’t speak, because I was afraid to make mistakes. But I worked to overcome that, because making mistakes is part of life.”

Now, Youssouf is fluent in four languages, including Spanish, and she’s graduating with honors from Casco Bay High School in Portland. She has distinguished herself as an outstanding student and community volunteer, attributes she plans to carry with her as the plans to attend Bowdoin College on a full scholarship.

A self-described introvert, Youssouf pushed herself to excel academically. She made the honor roll all four years, is a National Honor Society member and received the Maine Academic Achievement Award from the Phi Beta Kappa Association.

She’s especially proud that English, once her greatest challenge, has become a favorite pastime.

“I was not so great at writing, but now it’s one of my favorite things to do,” Youssouf said.

Outside school, Youssouf participated in the Maine Youth Leadership Seminar, Maine Medical Explorers and the Muslim Interscholastic Tournament in Boston. She also volunteered at the Preble Street Soup Kitchen, tutored younger students at her mosque, Masjid Al-Huda, and served as a junior volunteer at Maine Medical Center.

Youssouf plans to study science and Spanish in college, with an eye toward becoming a cardiologist and volunteering with Doctors Without Borders.

“Being a doctor is something I’ve always wanted to do,” she said. “I want to take care of people, and I want to combine my love for languages and traveling. I don’t want to do just one thing. I want to do all sorts of things.”

One of five children, Youssouf attributes her success to her parents, teachers and friends.

“My parents motivated me to become the best person I can be,” Youssouf said. “I’ve worked extremely hard, and I also try to be kind, because it’s not only what you do, but how you treat people, that matters.”

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