Written by Helda El-Temawi
Every year, when May rolled around, I fell into a feeling of hopelessness and told myself that I wasn’t good enough. I watched close friends, high school classmates, and even those younger than me, reach the pinnacle point of their college career. I found myself envying their success and the chance to put on a cap and gown and walk across the stage to receive my own diploma. At the same time, I watched those very people move forward with their lives and get married, growing their own little families. At some point in my life, I had to convince myself that everyone has their own struggles and that comparing myself to others was pointless. Everyone experiences difficulties in life that either break them or challenge them and push them to rise above. At some point in my life, I finally chose to rise above.
I didn’t grow up with a family that emphasized higher education very much. My parents weren’t opposed or against a girl going to college, but they didn’t exactly push me to either. I have older siblings who didn’t attend college, except for one, who has received not only one but three degrees! Mashallah! Instead, I felt as though I grew up in a family AND community that emphasized marriage over anything. Every girl I knew that was older than me, including my own sisters, put most of their efforts into getting married because that’s what you were expected to do— as if it was the one thing a woman had to succeed in and be the best at. I didn’t have role models around me that showed me that I can exceed beyond the normal expectations of getting married. The community, including my own family, celebrated the idea of getting married more than the successes of obtaining a college degree or pursuing a career. I didn’t get the logic behind it, but somehow I found that I got caught up in the midst of it as well. When it came to getting married: pressure from the community? Maybe. My family? Oh yes.
I enrolled in college in 2004, immediately out of high school just as most of us do and I pursued my degree with the goal of a fulfilling career in mind. But after 2 years, I hit a financial roadblock with school and was unable to register for a while. Six years to be exact, but who’s counting? Instead of pushing towards completing my college degree, I grew hopeless and negative. The struggle to get back into school didn’t seem realistic and I let it take over me. I told myself that I’ll get back into school someday and later convinced myself that maybe not everyone is meant to go to college.. Maybe I’m just meant to get married like everyone else and be a stay at home wife and mom. Yes, I ACTUALLY told myself these things.
When I think back on that, it makes me want to cry and slap myself across the face at the same time. How could I have let myself feel so resigned? I neither challenged myself nor chose to rise above. Instead, I let the situation dig me into a crater and swallow me whole. I got engaged to a man that I didn’t even like simply because I thought it was what I was supposed to do and my family expected me to get married. I wasn’t doing anything meaningful in my life at the time anyway so why not get married? Thankfully I came to my senses and that engagement ended quickly.
I wasn’t doing anything meaningful in my life at the time, so why not get married.
When I later decided to to go back to school and was financially stable enough to complete my degree, I hit another roadblock. I had recently enrolled into Rutgers but was getting to know— “halal dating” — a man from Toronto, and was planning on getting engaged to him then later moving there when we got married. When it came time to enroll for the next semester, I told myself, “You’re going to go live in Canada, you might as well wait until you move to finish school.” Again, I had postponed school for something or someone other than myself. I don’t know why I kept doing that, especially at a time when most of my friends were finishing up or already done with college. I’m not sure if I subconsciously wanted to please those around me and put my wants and needs aside, or if school just didn’t matter that much to me. I found myself in an all too familiar situation again and decided to end the relationship. SubhanAllah, it was after that breakup that I decided that school DID matter.
There was no reason to put it off any longer— after another yearlong hiatus I enrolled in the next semester and was determined to finish college so I could get my degree and pursue a career I was passionate about once and for all. Once I finally convinced myself that I was actually worthy of being successful and reaching this goal, nothing else got in my way.
Here I was, a 28-year-old undergraduate student attending school social events and getting involved just so I could know that I was getting the full college experience that Rutgers had to offer. If there were externship or internship opportunities, I applied. If there were volunteer positions that I was interested in, I was there. I didn’t let my age or my personal situation get in the way of me finally rising above.
I stopped worrying about everyone and everything around me and changed my attitude. I decided to put myself and my goals first. You, get a ‘screw you!’, you get a ‘screw you!’, but you sir, get an ‘I love you’. I stopped worrying about when I was going to meet the right one and get married. And when I stopped doing that, and stopped looking, the best thing happened to me, AlhamduliAllah— LOVE came to ME (but that’s a story for another time). I finally saw the light at the end of the tunnel and I just kept running towards it, no looking back or from side to side. I was determined.
On May 13, 2017, nearly 13 years after I first began attending college, not only did I walk across the stage and receive my diploma, I had the privilege of addressing my graduating class as the Senior Student Convocation Speaker. The thrill, excitement, and nervous feelings that ran through my body were surreal and rewarding. Not only were my close friends and family proud of me, but also for the first time in a really long time, I was proud of myself. I had graduated with honors, a 3.5 GPA, and walked away with an interesting and amazing college experience.
Not only were my close friends and family proud of me, but also for the first time in a really long time, I was proud of myself.
For me, it wasn’t about the degree itself. Graduating college was a personal goal I set for myself, one that I dedicated myself to and persisted until I achieved it. I know plenty of people who didn’t go to college and are very successful— at the end of the day, college isn’t for everyone. But no matter what your goals are, when you push yourself to overcome all obstacles and keep pushing through, the success of achieving your dreams becomes that much more worthwhile.
Success wouldn’t exactly be rewarding if it was easy, right? Have we actually ACHIEVED something if it wasn’t hard? If it was simply handed to us on a silver platter? We may fall a few times, like I did, but once we learn how to be in control, we learn a life-long skill set that we won’t ever forget. And I did just that! I subconsciously taught myself to take control of my life, to do things for myself and put myself first. AlhamduliAllah, even though it has taken me 13 years to finish college, I wouldn’t change one bit of my experience. I know now that if I had graduated “on time“ like everyone else, or hadn’t gone through everything I’ve been through, I would not have had the opportunities that I have today. And for that I am eternally thankful.
When it came to my degree, I hit some bumps along the road… but nevertheless, I persisted.