February 25, 2019 10:31 am

Pierce College alum Shalom Aburu vividly remembers the day she arrived in the United States to attend college. It was Dec. 13, 2013, and she had just left behind everything familiar to her in her home country of Uganda. In her mind, she expected to land in Washington and be surrounded by the warm, sandy beaches and palm trees she saw on television and in movies. Instead, the 18-year-old landed in the cold, wet Pacific Northwest. “I quickly learned that Washington and California were very different places,” she laughed. “But all I knew about the United States at the time was California. It was a little disappointing at first, until I settled in and made friends.”

As an international student at Pierce College, Aburu quickly made friends thanks to the variety of activities and events happening on campus.

“I am so lucky that Pierce College is very friendly to international students,” Aburu said. “They plan so many activities to make sure international students feel at home while getting to know American culture.”

Aburu’s original plan was to pursue a degree in biology and eventually go to medical school, but she quickly realized that becoming a doctor was not quite the right path for her. “I had always wanted to be a fashion designer instead, but in Uganda, growing up to be a designer is just not a thing,” she said. “African parents want you to be a doctor, lawyer, engineer or something like that. Those are considered real jobs. It never crossed my mind that I could do fashion as a profession until I came to America. This is the land of opportunity, and you really can follow your dreams here. It wasn’t until I came to Pierce that I realized that I could follow my passion.”

With the support of her family, Aburu switched paths, and eventually earned an associate degree in art. She continued to pursue her passion as a designer, with her mother sending her fabric and other materials from Uganda, Kenya, Congo and other neighboring countries. Aburu would design and wear her own pieces, and was eventually asked if she would like to showcase her designs during a special event at Pierce College in 2014. “This was the first time I had ever shown my designs to other people, and it was such a special moment for me,” she said. “The response was so positive, it was just an amazing experience.”

Today, the 23-year-old Pierce College alum runs Aburu Fashion House, which features designs that blend her African heritage with western culture. “It’s important for me to bring a piece of home to my designs,” she said. “Whenever I can use my fashion to open people’s eyes to a world they don’t know much about, it just warms my heart.”

Aburu has worked in fashion in Seattle and Bellevue for several years and, this year, entered two pageants – and took top honors in both. She currently holds the titles of Miss Uganda North America and Miss Africa Washington State. Through these organizations, she is able to make an impact on people in need back home in Uganda. The platform she pursued during the pageants was improving education for underprivileged youth in Uganda.

Aburu remembers growing up in the slums of Kampala, the capital city of Uganda, and struggling to get by. It wasn’t until she was in middle school that her mother’s career in real estate allowed Aburu and her siblings to attend a high-quality school.

Her mother recently started the Morkiswa Community Skilling Institute, a nonprofit organization that helps underprivileged youth find access to quality education. Aburu works hard to support their mission from the United States. “The organization provides youth with education and training in vocational skills such as carpentry and tailoring,” she said. “Most of our students are single mothers or teenaged mothers. Once they gain the skills they need, they’re able to find jobs and eventually help their families.”

Through her involvement with these pageants, many doors have been opened to give back in other ways. Next year, she will be traveling back home to Uganda to perform charity work in the community. “When I was growing up without many resources, I used to see people in the community trying to help us,” she said. “It really used to warm my heart to see that, and to have the opportunity to be on the other side and help other people in need is just amazing.”