“What do you want to be when you grow up.”
As a child of immigrants, that already loaded question was filled with the additional pressures and expectations of what my parents wanted me to be. And in their case, the only appropriate answer to that question was something along the lines of doctor, lawyer, or engineer.
For many immigrant parents, those seem like the only worthy careers to justify the struggles and sacrifices they made creating a life here for us in the “land of opportunity.” And especially with us Arabs, it’s almost always about the reputation, money, and what other people will think or say. We are constantly competing with one another for respect and praise within the community, even if that community is far removed from our reality.
Growing up, my parents would always compare us to other people’s children. “Look at my cousin’s cousin’s sister’s nephew who graduated from so-and-so college and is now a doctor,” or, “Look at my friend’s daughter who I saw post on Facebook about her legal internship in Washington D.C.” In their defense, it was their way of motivating us. But it ended up having the opposite effect.
I had always done great in school. I received high honors throughout middle and high school, so my parents always had high hopes for me. So, when it came time to choose a program of study and apply for colleges, you could say my parents were more than a little disappointed when I told them I was planning on majoring in English.
“So what, you want to be a teacher?” they said, emphasizing on the word teacher, like it was a bad thing.
It was only when someone told my mom that a lot of people actually choose to study English before going to law school because it helps them with their communication and writing skills, that she changed her mind about my chosen field of study. Her ears perked up, her eyes lit up, and her face beamed instantly.
My dad, on the other hand, had his heart set on at least one of his children following in his footsteps and becoming a computer engineer. He would tell us all about C++, and how computer science was the best field to go into because you’ll never be out of a job.
But, as much as those things excited them, they didn’t excite me. Not only did I not feel like I had it in me to be an aggressive lawyer, or a high-tech computer engineer, but I knew that I would not be happy in either career.
My heart was in writing. It came easy to me, and was something I always enjoyed doing. I loved reading, especially magazines, and I always dreamed of working for a popular publication like Seventeen, Glamour, Teen Vogue, or CosmoGirl.
I envied female leads like Lauren Conrad with her internship at Teen Vogue, Carrie Bradshaw from Sex in the City, and Oprah. Oh gosh, how much I loved Oprah. I always told my mom that I wanted to be “Oprah al-Arab,” (cheesy I know), to which she always encouragingly responded, “Inshallah, why not?”
However, there were always concerns in my parents’ minds about where this career path would take me. They didn’t want me writing about politics as a Palestinian American Muslim, and they were also completely against the lifestyle they imagined came with working at a publication like Teen Vogue in New York.
I had my own doubts as well. Part of me always thought, “How would little old sheltered me ever make it in a world like that, where you really need to put yourself out there?”
So, it didn’t help when I was constantly met with even more doubts and negative criticism from others along the way.
When I started applying to colleges, I had my sight set on Boston University because of its strong communications program, but my mom really wanted me to apply to Harvard. Didn’t I tell you she had really high hopes for me?
I will never forget my college interview with the alumni from Harvard. We were sitting at Starbucks while my mom was anxiously waiting in the car. He asked me a few light questions before hitting me with, “So, how do you want to make a difference in the world?”
I paused for a second, and said, “I want to help change the perception of Muslims in America.”
And he looked at me strangely and said, “How do you want to do that?”
I responded, “Through my writing as a journalist.” And I proceeded to explain how the media plays a huge role in pushing the false narrative about Muslims, and how I was determined to show a different perspective through my writing.
He bluntly said to me, “People don’t go to Harvard to become journalists. People go to Harvard to become doctors, lawyers, or the next president of the United States, like Barack Obama. People come to Harvard to change the world.”
While what he said might be true, it was a discouraging slap in my face. It made me feel like what I wanted to do didn’t matter. That it wasn’t worthy. That I wasn’t worthy.
I would be lying if I told you I was surprised, or that it was anything different from what I had already experienced. He was just another person undermining my dreams and my passion.
And let me tell you, it made me want to do it that much more. Not to just prove them wrong, but to prove to myself that I was making the right decision in sticking to what I felt in my heart was right for me.
But, in truth, all of the negativity, all of the doubts and fears settled in the back of my mind, and it created this anxiety within me that pushed me to unhealthy extremes.
I became determined to not only succeed in college, but to be at the top of my class in order to make my parents proud, and to try and meet their expectations on some level. So, anything below an A didn’t cut it. I became obsessed with my GPA. I wanted, no, I needed to maintain a 4.0 just in case I decided to pursue a Master’s Degree or a PhD in a top tier school, or continue on to law school as my mother always wanted. At least, that’s what I convinced myself I needed to do.
For four years I ate, drank, slept, and breathed school as the voice in my head relentlessly pushed me to keep going. I think part of me was trying to overcompensate for pursuing something less than what was hoped or expected of me, and a path that was filled with so much uncertainty and negativity.
Like I said before, I knew I was good at writing, and was always interested in journalism, but I feared that my parent’s overprotection of me would hold me back from succeeding and experiencing the career to the fullest. I didn’t feel 100% confident in it, and that terrified me.
But then, for my honor’s project in my senior year of college, I came up with the idea of creating my own lifestyle and fashion magazine for American Muslim women similar to the ones I had always known and loved. AM Women Magazine was the answer to all of my prayers, as cliche as that sounds. I finally felt like I had a stronger sense of direction. I finally found my purpose.
You would think that voila! moment would wake me up and pull me off of the obsessive path I was on, but it didn’t. Instead of really focusing on developing that idea, I put it on the back-burner because, at the time, maintaining my 4.0 was all that mattered.
I was fully convinced that a 4.0 would make me feel accomplished and worthy. It was the golden ticket I needed to secure some type of reputable job if all else failed. It was the golden ticket I needed to impress employers despite my foreign name. It was the golden ticket I needed to make my parents forever proud of me. It was what I needed to relieve the anxiety within my perfectionist, Type-A self of falling short of perfection. It was as if, anything less than that would result in a lack of opportunity, utter disappointment, and complete failure.
I became a walking zombie towards the end of my college career, juggling 6 classes, including an internship and my honors project, and working part time on the side. Professors even became concerned about me when they heard about my GPA.
One professor said to me, “Why are you doing that to yourself? It’s not worth it.” While another said, “You’ve gotten this far, don’t give up. Nowadays, jobs are so competitive, you’ll need anything that will set you apart.” And of the two pieces of advice, the latter is the one that stuck.
That and the thought of my mom, and how she would always proudly jump to say, “My daughter has a 4.0, and is planning on starting her own magazine” whenever telling anyone she knew about me.
Sure enough, I ended up graduating as one of two valedictorians of my entire university. I received numerous medals and awards, including the Chancellor’s Medal and Trustee’s Key for Outstanding Academic Achievement. To be honest, standing on that stage, receiving my awards, and seeing the proud faces of my parents as they cheered me on felt absolutely amazing. Mama, I made it.
But after graduation, when all of the celebrations were done, I was completely burnt out, mentally, emotionally, and physically. I didn’t know what my next steps were, and I definitely didn’t have the energy to figure it out.
So, I decided to take a break for the summer, and when it came time to get back to reality, I still wasn’t sure what I wanted to do.
I knew I wanted to start creating the magazine, so it made the most sense to me to find a flexible, and minimally demanding job, so that I could really focus my time and energy on it. I ended up working as a part-time admin for the real estate office my mom worked at, and was slowly working on the magazine whenever I could.
And when I say slowly, I mean s-l-o-w-l-y. I was in a rut, not sure where to start, and felt an overwhelming sense of fear about taking this entrepreneurial direction instead of applying for jobs with my hard-earned GPA and well-crafted resume. It felt like I sacrificed my mental, emotional and physical health, along with my social life for nothing.
I started distracting myself by getting more involved in real estate. I got my license, and worked closely alongside my boss as a way of not only distracting myself, but to feel like I was actually doing something real. I was always concerned about what employers would think if I was unemployed for a while. My resume was always on my mind.
But really, it was just another excuse I gave myself to put off working on the magazine because I was so afraid of starting and failing this thing that not only I, but my mother had built up so much in our minds, and in the minds of others. It almost felt like it was better keeping it as a dream than a thing that became a reality, and failed.
And now, here we are, four years post-graduation and I only recently launched the magazine a few months ago. But, I am so glad I finally did, and I couldn’t be happier.
I don’t think I would have been able to keep at it without the support and encouragement of my family. My mom was and still is my biggest supporter through it all.
She was constantly pushing me to “Just start it,” until I finally did, even though it wasn’t what she had initially wanted for me. Every once in a while, she’ll still tell me about this or that lawyer she worked with, and how much money they make an hour, which is always followed by a look that most certainly says, “That could have been you.”
It maybe could have, but I am still glad it isn’t. Alhamdulillah, I don’t regret any decision I made, other than not starting the magazine sooner. I regret letting my own doubts, fears, and assumptions hold me back from fulfilling my true potential and doing what makes me genuinely happy and excited to get up every day.
Seeing how proud my parents were and still are of me, made me realize that I was wrong to assume anything less than that. Although I knew of their expectations and what they wanted, they never put any real pressure on me. In reality, I had built it up in my head, and put that pressure on myself. I was the only person truly standing in my way. But not anymore.
From my experience, I have a learned a few lessons:
- Your parents, for the most part, will be proud of you no matter what. At the end of the day, they just want to see you happy. When they see you thriving doing what you love, they will be just as happy for you, too. Your parents have good intentions even if it doesn’t seem like it. They don’t want to see you struggle like they may have, and instead want the utmost stability and success for you. Once they get over their
fears and concerns, they will wholeheartedly support you, and will be on the sidelines (or on the frontlines like my mom) cheering you on every step of the way.
- It’s okay if you don’t have everything figured out when you graduate. Some people know very early on what career path they want to take, and what their plan is going to be right after college. But that is definitely not the case for many other people. Like me, there are people that may be interested in more than one thing, or some that have never felt a calling to any one particular thing, and that’s okay. It’ll come with experience. Don’t put so much pressure on yourself to have a set plan or follow a timeline. Give yourself a chance to find yourself, and to explore different things because life is way too short to do something you hate every day.
- Stay true to yourself. Don’t do anything for anyone else or just to prove others wrong. And definitely don’t do something just to gain the approval or praise of others. Because the happiness that praise will give you will only run so deep. You will be doing yourself and others a disservice by pursuing something you have very little interest in or care for. So, think about the things you enjoy the most, and really try to find your life’s purpose because that will bring the best out of you, so that you can put your best back into the world.
- The time is now. Don’t postpone your dreams or goals for tomorrow. Make the most of the time you have today to invest in your dreams and in yourself. Every day you wait, could mean another opportunity missed, or another chance at making a strong impact lost. Don’t wait to feel the regret of seeing others bring your idea to life to motivate you to start. Start now, before the fears and doubts creep in, while you have the passion and motivation boiling inside you to just. freaking. do it. Take a leap of faith, and start now. Really, stop reading this, and go start. You’ll feel so much better when you do. Trust me.