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Quiet while at NDSU, U.S. Rep. Omar now makes national headlines

U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., listens during a news conference Nov. 30 on Capitol Hill in Washington. Omar graduated in 2011 from North Dakota State University, where those who knew her said she lived a relatively quiet existence. Bloomberg photo by Andrew Harrer

FARGO — Before making history and grabbing headlines during her first embattled months in Congress, U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar was a student at North Dakota State University.

It’s an often-overlooked chapter in her life now consumed with controversy.

The 37-year-old Democrat is the first Somali-American member of Congress, representing Minnesota’s 5th District encompassing Minneapolis and a large population of Somali-Americans. Since being sworn into office in January, critics have repeatedly accused her of being anti-Semitic, though she also has supporters who appreciate what they see as straight talk.

Only a month into her role as a congresswoman, President Donald Trump was already calling for her resignation after Omar tweeted that U.S. support of Israel is “all about the Benjamins.”

Since then, the Omar firestorm has raged on, though little about her time in Fargo-Moorhead has been reported.

A prior 'low profile'

Omar, a former refugee, was largely unknown a few years ago, but her face has since graced the cover of Rolling Stone magazine.

Her political career took off in 2016 when she won a Minneapolis-area seat in Minnesota’s House of Representatives. Just five years earlier, in 2011, she graduated from NDSU with a degree in political science and international studies.

“How quickly she was able to become a congresswoman is surprising to a lot of people,” said Jaylani Hussein, executive director of Minnesota’s chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR).

Hussein is also an NDSU graduate who had a few political science classes with Omar. He considers Omar a friend who was “obviously a very bright student, top of her class.”

University records show Omar made the dean’s list in the fall semester of 2010, but there are few traces of her time at NDSU.

Omar didn’t serve in student government or write for the student-run newspaper, The Spectrum, though she recently penned an op-ed piece for the Washington Post calling for a two-state solution to the protracted Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

“She was keeping a low profile,” said Fowzia Adde of Omar's time at NDSU.

Adde, executive director of Moorhead’s Immigrant Development Center and a leader in the local Somali community, didn’t get to know Omar until the congresswoman returned on a visit to Moorhead in 2018. Adde said Omar didn’t interact much with the local Somali community when living in Fargo and she wasn't aware of Omar volunteering in the area. Omar often left Fargo on weekends, she said, to visit her family in Minneapolis.

Hussein described Omar as a non-traditional student because she was a mother and her time on campus was limited because of those parenting responsibilities.

He said he served as president of the NDSU Muslim Student Association, which organized the university’s first Islam Awareness Week that Omar helped coordinate.

Omar took an NDSU class about terrorism that has drawn some criticism and misunderstanding. Former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani and some right-wing websites have shared a video of Omar talking about that terrorism class she took in college.

NDSU does offer a class about terrorism, but as professor of the class, Jeffrey Bumgarner said the course does not teach students to become terrorists. Rather, the class is about examining the history of terrorism and how and where the political tool is used today.

“It’s a pretty standard course in college curriculum,” Bumgarner said, adding he didn’t teach the class when Omar was enrolled.

Bumgarner said the course explores the complexities, motivations and government responses to terrorism in different regions.

“I’m hopeful by the end of the course that they broaden their understanding, that there’s not just Jihadi terrorism. There are conflicts existing all over the world,” he said.

'Lightning rod for conservatives'

NDSU political science professor Tom Ambrosio was Omar’s adviser and said Omar is his first student to serve in Congress.

Ambrosio said he has been contacted by some online conservative bloggers seeking comments about Omar’s time at NDSU, but the professor said he is limited on what he can say about a former student.

He was open to sharing his thoughts on the ongoing attacks targeting Omar, however, adding that the controversy surrounding her paints a larger picture about identity politics.

“She is kind of a lightning rod for conservatives, but also the Democrats have placed her in that position as a face of the changing party and the party's increasing commitment to identity politics.”

Ambrosio said Omar is part of the new Democratic party, firmly committed to identity politics with a diverse group of women rallying around her. But veteran Democrats, like Speaker Nancy Pelosi and other longtime members of the House, are condemning anti-Semitism.

Ambrosio said Omar is “clearly pro-Palestine, which makes her almost by default anti-Israel, and there is a tendency to see anti-Israel as anti-Semitic.” He said some of Omar’s comments feed into tropes of Israel controlling everything and having divided loyalties, which has been used in the past to promote anti-Semitism.

Ambrosio said some may argue that Israel should be held to a higher standard, but questioning the pro-Israel lobby is considered too controversial to touch. There will be an immediate reaction, he said, to anything resembling criticism of the lobby.

“What she’s saying, others have said before, but they've been accused of anti-Semitism,” he said.

While political leaders and citizens alike are calling for Omar’s resignation, Ambrosio doesn’t see that happening.

“She is in such a safe seat,” he said. “She didn't even have to campaign.”

Omar handily won Minnesota’s 5th Congressional District, garnering 78 percent of votes.

Ambrosio said while Omar may be getting some bad press, she’s also become a “champion” for others.

“You can say she’s having a difficult time, but ultimately I think this helps her,” he said. “Politically, her best bet is to plow ahead in terms of policy.”

Omar’s seemingly quiet time at NDSU is a stark contrast to her political career today. Despite backlash, Omar doesn’t back down. At a recent CAIR fundraiser in Los Angeles, she told a crowd of Muslim-Americans to “raise hell, make people uncomfortable.”