For the longest time I didn’t feel as if I belonged anywhere. I was born in Karachi, Pakistan, and spent the first 18 years of my life in Kuwait. I was raised Muslim, a Shia Ismaili, and attended an Indian Catholic School. I could read and write Hindi fluently (in fact because my Arabic pronunciation was subpar, I owned a Hindi Quran), while my Urdu was rather pathetic. I grew up learning the Quran at school, and participating in Quran reciting contests, but I also sang about Jesus Christ during morning assembly. I could sing the Indian and Kuwait National Anthems perfectly (I still can), and barely knew the first two lines of the Pakistani Anthem. Most of my friends were Indian girls from Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Goa, Karnataka, and a few from Delhi. They were all gorgeously brown like me.
I grew up in an age where my grandmother would make me bleach my elbows, knees and face to lighten my skin because I was “too black”. I would cry because the bleach would burn my skin, and I remember feeling a deep sense of resentment at how servile my People acted around Whites. I was one of four Pakistani girls in that school, and we were very aware of it. There was still a lot of animosity between India and Pakistan, and we were often called out for our country’s politics. In 10th grade, I completed my Indian board exams, and because the school I was in did not go past the 10th year, I needed to transfer to another school. The other Indian school in the area refused to take Pakistanis, and so I ended up going to the American School.
The make up at that school was distinctly different. There were a number of White and Biracial students, many of them Kuwaitis, Palestinian, Egyptian, Iraqis, or other parts of the Middle East. I always wanted to fit in, but I could never seem to. Those years were very influential in the way I thought about myself, and where I belonged (or didn’t). In 1990 I graduated from High School, and my family accompanied me to the United States to bring me to college. Two days after we landed in Boston, Kuwait was invaded by Iraq, and everything I knew as home was gone.
I drifted often during the next several years, always searching for a place to belong. I didn’t feel connected to Pakistan, as I had never grown up there. Despite my Indian School education, I had a hard time connecting with Indians. I certainly wasn’t Middle Eastern, as my life in Kuwait had been as an expatriate. In an effort to figure things out, I often went inward, trying to make sense about my place in the world.
On the outside, I found a deep sense of purpose and belonging in Student Affairs. The invasion had rattled my sense of security, and my involvement in Student Affairs almost from the moment I started college, gave me a sense of purpose that helped me move beyond me. I found the work affirming and it filled me with joy. It was a life’s calling that gave me an opportunity to serve and help students find purpose and meaning in their lives.
I did things with intensity though. That has always been my challenge. I do things to the point of burnout. And so after a few years of intense Student Affairs, I decided to quit. I went to Culinary School only to feel completely rudderless and alone. There was no sense of belonging at all! I had a catering business for a while, but the joy and creativity that had drawn me into the culinary profession suddenly became a chore, and I began to despise it. I missed that sense of purpose that the Student Affairs profession had given me. The opportunity to influence a person’s life and to be in an environment where I felt constantly challenged was missing.
It’s been 18 years since I made the decision to return to the profession. My career progression in the field has been a very organic process, and not something that I was very strategic about. More often than not, I have followed the dictates of my inner guide. I gave birth to my daughter when I was 30, and that propelled me into pursuing my Masters in Higher Ed. My desire to influence and help make a difference in students’ lives, was a driving factor behind my seeking a Doctorate in the profession. I wanted a seat at the “table” so that I could have a voice in decisions that played a key role in the student experience. At some point, I realized that all my life I had been searching for a place where I could belong, a place to call home. Meanwhile, I had been home the entire time. My need to belong somewhere had been right in front of me. I just needed to be still long enough to realize that working in Student Affairs was where I belonged.
This post is part of our #HigherEdDesi series, which aims to share the stories of what it means to identify as “Desi” and working in higher ed. We hope to provide a context of how we came into Higher Education and what that journey looked like for each one of us. For more information, please see Juhi Bhatt’s intro post. Be sure to check out other posts in this series!
> BONUS <
Podcast With Stacy Oliver-Sikorski on Professional Development