“Remember: what happens in the house, stays in the house. When you are a visitor in somebody else’s home, make sure that you eat beforehand. When there are visitors in our home, make sure that you eat beforehand. You will not make yourself look hungry in front of guests. Absolutely not.
“What you also won’t do is sleep over at anybody’s house. I personally don’t care who they are, or what they mean to you. We come from Sudan, and we don’t do that over there: Are you following? You want to go out, eh? That’s cute. The answer is no, in advance. Will I change my mind? Ya bit, amshee noomi (Girl, go to bed). Or come help me clean the kitchen. If I die cleaning this house, at least you know what caused it! Filthy. You’re 21? Okay? And?
“This here is not Cornell University, so what you won’t do is live like you were living one week ago. You’re in my house now. And when you leave my house, when you walk out with me, you will be covered from the neck down. A modest woman. Do you hear me?
“I don’t know why I have to keep reminding you. It’s been three years since you left, and you come back acting the same, or even worse, every time! You think because you go to this big, fancy school, you can come back and use all of these words I don’t understand and wear all of these clothes that look like they came off the rack at the Children’s Place? Have you gone mad, oh? Sudan is right around the corner; do not play with me. I will book your ticket today. Humble yourself, before I show you what humility is. Go on and be great now! Tell your friends I say hello!”
Above are the words of my mother, who has raised me to be ambitious, to always give more than I think I can give in all aspects of my life, and to never take “no” for an answer. Evidently, it wasn’t always easy. Finding a balance between fulfilling the traditional, outdated requirements of my household, while also taking full advantage of the opportunities that have come my way, continues to be incredibly difficult.
In high school, I took it upon myself to apply for, and attend, summer college-prep programs, whether they were away at a boarding school, or a university. As an undergraduate, I have actively searched for opportunities to broaden my network and enhance my learning experience. While it is always difficult to leave home at the beginning of whatever opportunity presents itself, being away has given me certain freedoms that I don’t have access to all the time, allowing me to practice independence and realize who I want to be.
All of this is to say that these past few years at Cornell have been some of the most difficult years of my life. I have struggled to maintain my relationship with my family while overcoming the challenges I face on campus. Of course, with these experiences, I have grown greatly: in character, mannerisms, and behavior. Through this change, I have dealt with two contrasting emotions, pulling at each side of me: the burdensome, ubiquitous feeling of importer syndrome, and the constant need I feel to remind myself of the privilege I have been granted. Below is a thank you letter that I have used to not only advance my journey of development and reflection thus far, but as a reminder to continue to overcome, while being true to my authentic self:
Thank you for waking up this morning.
Thank you for staying in bed and taking the day off.
Thank you for waving back to that person who wasn’t waving at you from afar (it’s okay).
Thank you for going to that e-board meeting, even though you know you should’ve been studying for that prelim.
Thank you for using your last guest swipe on your friend who doesn’t have a meal plan.
Thank you for responding to that email, even though your TA/professor spelled your name wrong, ESPECIALLY if it’s in your signature.
- Best, Jamilia, Manila, Jamillah, Jamie
Thank you for smiling back to Happy Dave, even if the snow was at your knees, and there was no more room on the TCAT for you to spare your legs going to class.
Thank you for going out of your comfort zone and pushing yourself to go to that career fair.
Thank you for spending the night at Uris, even if you weren’t the most productive.
Thank you for finding a way to somehow carry your groceries back to your room in one trip, including that 24 pack of water.
Thank you for eating sleep for dinner some nights because you forgot that the dining hall closed at 8, and you ran out of ramen.
Thank you for making that last 10 dollars you had in your account stretch for a week before you got paid for the 2-3 campus jobs you have to work to sustain yourself.
Thank you for making time to speak to your family.
Thank you for walking up the slope, especially if the 10 drove off just as you were pulling up to the bus stop.
Thank you for putting those Regent fries and that G&G on your Cornell Card. You deserve.
Thank you for attending that event, even if your social battery was dying as you were getting ready.
Thank you for going about your day with grace and humility, even after just reading a “Thank you for applying to… We regret to inform you...” email.
Thank you for appreciating OADI’s freeTuesday lunches, because that’s all you could afford at the moment.
Thank you for staying in and cleaning your room, even if it meant missing that function everyone was excited about.
Thank you for setting aside some time and disputing that final grade that you know your professor (may or may not have) miscalculated.
Thank you for having it in you to walk home from the library at night (sometimes alone) with the threat of being racially profiled.
Thank you for keeping your notes, study guides, and textbooks for those that come after you.
Thank you for dealing with the traumatic emails from Dean Lombardi and the lack of empathy from faculty that stick to their rigid deadlines despite the campus climate.
Thank you for dealing with those that talk about an exam right after they get their results, and proceed to blatantly ask how you did.
Thank you: for overcoming.
Cornell’s “161 things to do before you graduate” does not mention any of these. Relative to what my colleagues aim for, I’ve come to realize that one of the most important goals I set for myself, which I still hope to accomplish within the next 10 years of my life—buying my mother a house—seems quite sad. My eyes light up when someone mentions the thought of setting themselves up to be a millionaire one day, or becoming the CEO of a major company.
I never really knew what really aiming that high was like, until I was granted the opportunity to surround myself with some of the most ambitious people I’ve met while here at Cornell. These people and their goals have been advantageous for my network and my ambitions, but they also took a significant toll on my confidence, character, and the way I viewed my career path.
While it seemed as though everyone around me was interning at well-known companies each summer, I, instead ended up staying on campus for the first two due to a number of reasons. As I was hoping to attend law school straight out of my undergraduate career, I had never put securing summer employment at the forefront of my goals. Instead, I worked towards things like managing my GPA, and taking extra classes during the summertime to prepare myself for the academic rigor that was ahead. However, as plans do indeed change, and I began to consider taking a gap year or two, I constantly felt as though I was not qualified for many of the full time jobs that I have recruited for this past semester. Nonetheless, one thing I always kept in mind, was to aim high. I took risks. With every rejection, came another opportunity to submit an application elsewhere. At some point, I lost hope. All of this is to say that timing certainly played a huge role throughout figuring out where next steps would be for me, and though everyone’s path is different, mine particularly made me feel as though I was never “good enough.” Thankfully, the search for employment is over, and through it all, I now have a clearer view of my professional, academic, and social capabilities.
The broader my views become, the more difficult it is for my mother to accept the woman I am becoming. I am not the same teenager whose high school and job were a block’s radius from our home. The comfort that she had, knowing that I’d always be there for her and my siblings, slowly diminished as it became harder to map out what my next steps were, or where I was going to end up.
Had I continued to be my mother’s comfort, I would not have found myself studying abroad in London this semester, and receiving the opportunity to travel to places I had never been before—an experience that neither she nor my father had the privilege of doing. While choosing what is best for myself will always leave a trail of guilt for the endless ways I still want to be there for my family, what ultimately keeps me going is knowing that I am paving the way for my younger siblings, so that they never have to feel like they are doing wrong by pursuing opportunities that are bigger than themselves. Being a student at Cornell has taught me what it really means to aim high: And that is one of the very few things I am grateful for when it comes to my undergraduate experience.
As for things that I am not particularly fond of, I can say that Cornell isn’t necessarily this egalitarian environment that “we” take pride in. There are significant and obvious inequities across communities that sometimes do not even acknowledge that people like me actually exist. Many of my peers hide behind their problematic, and fundamentally oppressive views that have manifested into things like hate crimes, sexual assault allegations, and overall lack of decency. While I am so grateful for the opportunity to attend such a prestigious institution, Cornell is far from this perfect picture that people often paint it to be. The reality of the situation, though (and this is something that I have constantly heard from our alumni) is that I am being prepared for the real world, as these types of issues are prevalent throughout society on a larger scale.
It is safe to say that the most instrumental thing that has kept me going throughout my undergraduate career has been my family. Though the household’s traditional upbringing remains firm, as my parents pride themselves in their outdated Sudanese ways, I have significantly decreased the amount of effort I’ve put into being somebody that I can no longer be for the sake of simply being there, as I hope to accomplish more than just that for them one day. Though it isn’t always easy, embracing and appreciating my upbringing, and the personal challenges that come with growing up in America, has been invaluable to my development and the growth of my perspective.
To my mother: Thank you will never be enough, but still I thank you: for your 12-13-hour work shifts, your motivating nature, the phone calls that I put you through just to tell you about what I had for lunch.
The world will be yours one day.
Cornell University ‘19