In the span of four years, American aid worker Kayla Mueller blossomed from student to teacher in the eyes of one of her former professors. While her fate remains unclear after ISIS claimed Friday that Mueller was killed in an airstrike in Syria, those she inspired are holding out hope that the 26-year-old hostage is still alive.
Carol Thompson, a professor of politics and international affairs at Northern Arizona University, told NBC News that Mueller had been a "brilliant" student who refused to sit idle while she saw others suffer. They first met in 2008, a year before Mueller graduated, while Thompson taught a class on southern Africa. Thompson said Mueller would ask "difficult questions for which her professors had few answers."
"She was indignant, quietly angry, about the excessive and growing inequality within the USA ... and globally," Thompson said. It was this passion that led Mueller to volunteer abroad and at home, Thomson said, adding that the two worked together at a local peace center and with a student-led anti-atrocity organization called Students Taking Action Now: Darfur (STAND).
Mueller went on to travel abroad and work in India, Palestine and the African Refugee Development Center in Israel, according to a statement released Friday on behalf of her family.
It was around that time, Thompson said, that Mueller "became 'my professor' as she visited Palestine and learned more about Syria."
"She educated me," Thompson said.
Thompson last saw Mueller in 2012, before the young woman traveled in December to the border of Turkey and Syria to work for aid groups supporting Syrian refugees.
During a trip home to Prescott, Arizona, in May 2013, Mueller told the Prescott Kiwanis Club: "For as long as I live, I will not let this suffering be normal. (I will not let this be) something we just accept," according to her hometown newspaper, The Daily Courier.
Mueller was taken captive in Aleppo, Syria, less than three months later, her family said. In May 2014, ISIS contacted Mueller’s family for the first time to provide a proof of life, the family added.
But on Friday, ISIS claimed that Mueller was killed inside a building purportedly flattened in a Jordanian airstrike. Jordan has been pounding ISIS in Syria with retaliatory airstrikes since the militants released a video Tuesday that appeared to show a captured Jordanian pilot being burned alive in a cage.
But U.S. defense officials and the U.S. State Department said there was no evidence to confirm that Mueller was killed in the strike — or at all — and foreign policy experts remain skeptical of ISIS’ claim.
Mueller’s parents, Carl and Marsha, for months, requested that their daughter’s name not be publicized out of fear for her safety. But they agreed to make her identity public on Friday, and said in a statement that they want the jihadist militants to contact them again.
"Kayla's mother and I have been doing everything we can to get her released safely," Carl Mueller said. "This news leaves us concerned, yet, we are still hopeful that Kayla is alive."
Thompson said she is trying to remain optimistic about the fate of her former student. "Hope? There is always hope," she said.