By Hafsa Shariff Abass
Being born in a traditional semi-Somali family translated into an inflexible cultural background. A background that largely scorns girl-child education and predominantly sets the girl child’s worth in the maternal bracket. In my family of twelve (eight girls and four boys), it was a bruising struggle of breathing space from the word “go”! My mother did not get any kind of formal education and my sisters did not escape the trap of our conservative family set-up either. Fortunately, I am the ninth born in my family and this meant great support from my sisters who were so dismal with their situations (they were all pushed into early marriages). This made them very determined to see me through school. “We want to live our dreams through you”, they would remind me often times. Even though, their hopes in me always made me feel pressurized, it gave me the strength to resolve for nothing but the very best.
Broad College of Business is the BEST I had always yearned for, but majority of my friends and family thought I was being over ambitious. My high school principal strongly discouraged me from applying to MSU insisting that only presidents’ and executives’ kids get the opportunity to study in America. Demoralized, I wanted to give up, but Warren Buffet’s quote, “People will always try to stop you from doing the right thing if it is unconventional”, gave me the audacity to believe in myself and to apply to this great school. I knew rather too well that it was atypical for girls in my family to hope for high school education (not college), it was even more “ridiculous” to dream of studying in America.
Days changed to weeks, weeks to months, and the long-awaited day finally reached. I was going to MSU! No, I was not day dreaming. This was real: a triumph unimaginable by any girl in my family. On August 16th at the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport in Nairobi, a mixture of emotions engulfed me. I was happy to take the next big step of my life, but sad to leave my family. Remaining in my comfort zone, though, was a luxury that I could not afford. As I was walking inside the airport with a sunken heart, I looked back one last time and my five-year old niece shouted, “Say hi to President Obama”. This made me make no effort to stop tears from flushing out of my eyes. It made me realize that I owed my nieces the hope of getting education beyond primary school. And to the rest of my family, I had instilled a sense of pride in them. In simple words, MSU represented more than just college; it represented hope and pride.
Inside the plane, I felt scared. Scared of the uncertainty that lay before me. Will my home for the next four years be all that I dreamt and hoped for? What about all the Islamophobic stuff I had seen in news countless times? The thought of discrimination freaked me out. The reality was now dancing right in front of my eyes. Coming from a small town in Kenya, the thought of a university with a population of 50,000 made me feel like my brain was coated with a layer of Vaseline! I could not think straight anymore. I assumed there would be some sickening queue everywhere I went: from the cafeteria to the bus station to the restrooms. My heartbeat increased aggressively and I wished I could jump off the plane and run back home.
At the Lansing Airport, we were welcomed by some of the university’s MasterCard Foundation Program team. The warm, welcoming expressions on their faces made me breath a sigh of relief: a breath that I was nervously holding in my chest for the whole 26 hours journey.
“How was the journey?” Dr. Isaac Kalumbu asked.
“Nerve-wracking”, my heart whispered, but I decided to compose myself. I mean I was not going to confide into strangers: good manners taught me not to, my culture trained me not to! Instead, a faint “It was good”, slipped from my lips.
The drive to campus was one filled with bliss. The environment was so beautiful and quite. I enjoyed the silence more than anything else. In any street in Kenya, one would hear all kinds of noise: from goats’ bleating to matatus’ (public transport vehicles) deafening music to hawkers noisily advertising their merchandise. This is when it dawned on me that I was in America. Yes, America! I was not fantasizing; I was living the moment. It felt great to finally be where my heart was.
The Brody Square is beautiful I confess. The food, though, left me wondering if I had left my taste buds in Kenya. The potatoes tasted weird, and the eggs’ taste was even worse. What was more frightening was the spinach: some uncooked tiny leaves were tagged spinach! And its taste convinced me that it was the worst thing that ever happened to human kind. I knew spinach as huge-leafed vegetables that are chopped into tiny pieces and fried. Almost everything else in the cafeteria was scaring and strange. I resorted to cereals for breakfast and fries for both lunch and dinner. After a week long of feeling frustrated, I realized the only way out was to develop a positive attitude and an open mind to everything. From then on I tried something different each time I went into the cafeteria. Somehow, my taste buds “flew” from home and back into my mouth and the foods’ taste tremendously improved.
The IAOP week was the beginning of my long-awaited college life. We learned a lot about the American education system, how to deal with culture shock, the safety rules among other things. Only then did I understand why I was going to take an Applied Environmental and Organismal Biology (ISB 202) class. It is a university requirement! This really amazed me because I am a business major and was wondering why I was enrolled in such a class in my schedule builder. I learnt that MSU strives to ensure that its graduates are all-rounded. I felt even more blessed when I learned that I could also enroll in a writing class! Writing has always been my most special hobby, and the opportunity of honing my skills meant the world to me. In the Kenyan Higher Education System, though, one can only enroll in his or her major specific classes. Again, this was no daydream!
I am an introvert, or as my sisters would say a “social-dwarf” and I thought fitting in college would be very difficult. But, behold! I was in for a surprise. Everyone was so nice and making friends was easier than has ever been in my life. It all started with my cohort members at the IAOP; we did a lot of icebreakers (totally alien word to me), which helped us learn more about each other. The icebreakers reduced a lot of tensions that had inundated us. It gave us the chance to talk about ourselves openly and confidently. By the end of the IAOP, I had more than a dozen friends: an achievement that never crossed my mind before.
A lover of books, I found myself eagerly waiting for the Andrew Carnegie Medals for Excellence in Fiction and Nonfiction winners often times. I would thus read the winning authors’ books to increase my knowledge broad base. This year (2015), I read Bryan Stevenson’s winning JUST MERCY as it had won the nonfiction medal. I immediately fell in love with it because it inspired me in a way that no other book did in my whole life! It became a part of me since last summer. It never crossed my mind, though, that I would ever get the opportunity of meeting Bryan in person. Little did I know that MSU had a lifetime surprise for me: Bryan Stevenson was invited to the 2015 Fall Convocation! For a moment there my brain stopped working; I could not fathom seeing Bryan in person. Oh! This was too much for me. On that morning of August 31st, 2015 I could hardly take breakfast because my stomach was full of “butterflies”. I was so anxious that I could not differentiate whether I was just dreaming or it was real. But then everything was so real; Bryan came to MSU! Yes, he did address us directly from his lips and not just from his writings. That moment confirmed the ultimate truth to me: I am a Spartan and the sky is just the beginning.
After two long weeks of being disconnected from the world, I was finally at BestBuy to get my SIM card. One lady approached me with a big a smile on her face and asked how she could help me. I was impressed by her politeness (something I was not used to) and told her that I wanted a SIM card. She asked me to choose my carrier. “What is a carrier?” I was utterly dumbfounded! I insisted that I was not there for any “carrier” and all I needed was a SIM card. She also looked confused and this made me realize that something was amiss. Excusing myself, I left the shop and went back to my residence hall feeling silly. Once in my room, I searched the word “carrier” in Google only to realize that it is exactly what we call “line” in Kenya. From that day on, I formed a rapport with Google. I would search up anything that I was not sure of lest I make a buffoon of myself.
Adapting to a totally new environment is never a piece of cake, but MSU gave me the rare opportunity of feeling appreciated and at home. Being a Spartan is my biggest feat, my biggest pride, and my biggest manifestation of hope. Yes, green blood does flow through my veins and this is no fantasy, I promise!