The Power of Mentoring

With the Alumni Mentor Program nearing its 40th year, catch up with one of the program’s most successful pairings.
Mukhtar Ibrahim and Laura Yuen

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When the Hubbard School of Journalism and Mass Communication alum Mukhtar Ibrahim saw his first byline next to MPR News’ Laura Yuen’s, he couldn’t believe it. But it was exactly what he had hoped for when he signed up to participate in the mentorship program back in 2009. Not only did Yuen inspire Ibrahim, but she gave him a chance to report alongside her on some of the most important stories in the community.

Read on to learn about how this duo’s mentorship experience evolved and blossomed into a decade-long working relationship.

Why did you ask to be paired with Laura Yuen when you applied for the mentor program as a journalism student?

Mukhtar Ibrahim (B.A. ’11): When I declared journalism as a major in my junior year in 2009, I had no idea where to begin. I just had a fascination with news and current events. At the time I was pre-med and was closely following the al-Shabaab cases. Laura Yuen was one of the reporters covering those cases and the Muslim community.

Laura’s coverage was stunning. Her radio stories had a distinctive style. The people she interviewed in her stories sounded like me. I could hear the voices of people praying in the mosque. Mothers speaking in Somali, young people in perfect English. I was amazed by her work. It wasn’t your typical coverage where you interview someone and then come back to the newsroom and write a story. Laura went beyond that. She established deep trust and connections in the Somali community, sometimes meeting her sources at their homes and coffee shops in the evening. And that’s why her coverage was different, and the reason I asked to be paired with Laura when I filled out my mentorship application. It was one of the best decisions I have made.

What was the most rewarding part of your experience as a mentor to Mukhtar?

Laura Yuen: It’s hard to name just one thing. Seeing Mukhtar grow from a cub reporter to an accomplished journalist and finally to the founding executive director of his own publication [Sahan Journal] has been hugely rewarding. I know he would have succeeded without me because he always had the passion and the vision. But I’ve been along for the ride at just about every turn of his career, and it’s been exhilarating even to bear witness to his growth.

What was the most valuable part of the experience that helped you advance your career goals?

Ibrahim: Although I was her mentee, Laura never treated me as such. I think she always viewed me as a reporter who can do the work. She believed in me when I had doubts whether I made the right decision by switching from pre-med to journalism. I remember one evening I notified Laura about a shooting in the Cedar-Riverside neighborhood. It was a chilly evening, but Laura decided to come anyway. She told me to ask some questions to witnesses. When she wrote the story, she gave me a byline. I could not believe it. I think that was my first byline, and I still remember the euphoria I felt when I saw my name next to Laura’s on the website of MPR News. From then on, Laura has been an amazing mentor, colleague and friend. I don’t think I would be where I am today without her encouragement, mentorship and support.

What makes a mentor-mentee experience a success?

Yuen: Lots of coffee? When Mukhtar and I met about a decade ago, it was indeed at a coffee shop. I could tell from that first afternoon that he was going places. He read a lot of news. He also was curious. Because he was familiar with my reporting, he asked me questions like, “How did you break this story? How did you get your sources to talk?” It seemed what he needed then was just a professional journalist to pull back the curtains on what we do every day. So we met periodically over coffee, Somali tea and Ethiopian food over the course of that first year. I was happy to do that because Mukhtar was a quick learner and I knew if given a chance, he would go far as a journalist.  

So, what made it work? I’d say Mukhtar didn’t let me forget about him, he made the most of our time together, and he let me know what he needed.

What was it like going from mentor-mentee to a colleague in the same newsroom, working together on the same projects?

Ibrahim: When I joined MPR News as a staff reporter, I finally got the chance to work with Laura. We teamed up to work on the ISIS-related cases, one of my most challenging assignments to date. It was a huge and complex case dealing with several young East African men who were convicted of attempting to join ISIS. We worked on this case from beginning to end for almost two years, wading through court documents, combing through social media posts, knocking on doors of strangers, listening to several weeks of long testimonies and legal arguments during the trial. That was my first time covering a trial. It was exhausting. But I had Laura, one of the best in the industry, going through this with me. We did a stellar job, breaking exclusive news stories. Working with an experienced journalist on this complex case challenged me and made me a better reporter. After the trial ended, I told myself, “Hey, if I can do this, I can do anything!”

What was it like working with Mukhtar on the ISIS reporting and trial?

Yuen: I thought I had a good pulse on the Somali community in Minnesota because of my previous reporting, but Mukhtar had deeper connections and knowledge. He helped me think about things in ways I wouldn’t have otherwise. He also opened a lot of doors for us, literally. I remember we went door-knocking and tried to persuade family members of the young ISIS recruits to share with us what they knew. One tried to slam the door on us, but he instinctively—and gently—put up his hand to the door, pleading with her to help us shed light on this heartbreaking story. I will never forget the pride I felt that day. Mukhtar is guided by the conviction that transparency is what’s best for our community, our society. People talk to him because they sense his earnestness.

You are now founder, editor and executive editor of Sahan Journal. Can you tell us about its mission? Why you created it, and where you see it going in the future?

Ibrahim: As one of the first journalists of Somali background in Minnesota to work in traditional newsrooms, I have seen firsthand how news outlets underserve Minnesota’s immigrant and refugee communities. As a reporter, I felt an immense responsibility to help colleagues find contacts in immigrant communities, translate interviews and pass on story ideas to editors and reporters in the hopes of boosting coverage of immigrants outside the news cycle. Lack of diversity and cultural competency, however, remains a challenge for mainstream newsrooms. That’s why I decided to launch a news website that covers immigrant and refugee communities in Minnesota. We serve an audience that’s rapidly growing and also undercovered by traditional media outlets.

How does it feel seeing your former mentee become a successful journalist, in charge of a new and innovative online news publication dedicated to covering immigrant communities in Minnesota?

Yuen: It’s wild! One thing I never anticipated is how far Mukhtar would re-imagine the possibilities of journalism. I’ve worked in mainstream media for about 20 years, doing what I can within the system to expand the narratives of people of color, immigrants and other underrepresented voices. But he is creating a new model entirely. Sahan means “pioneer.” That’s a fitting name for his journal, and an apt description for Mukhtar, too. 

Interview by Riham Feshir (B.A. '08), MPR News reporter and Alumni Society Board member