Special Guests: Storyteller Sahar Ullah and Kaleidoscope Alum Rahat Huda

Last Thursday’s extended class session was supposed to cover race and prejudice, with interludes from two very special guests on storytelling and success. However, our visitors, Sahar Ishtiaque Ullah, co-founder of The Hijabi Monologues, and Rahat Huda, an accomplished Kaleidoscope alum, were so generous with their time and knowledge that we put the syllabus aside for the day. So, be prepared to discuss two readings from last week on race (Morrison & Ribeyro) and two from this week on disability (to be voted on in class) in TOMORROW’S session (rescheduled from this Thursday) at our normal time, 6:30-8pm, but WEDNESDAY, July 18.

Sahar talked to us about how the Hijabi Monologues grew out of her desire for a venue where Muslim American women could tell their own stories. Playing off Eve Ensler’s Vagina Monologues, each hijabi monologue spotlights a different character’s personal experience of religion, race, gender, sexuality, and xenophobia in the U.S. To start her talk, Sahar showed us “I’m Tired,” a monologue whose themes resonate for many young people. She wrote “I’m Tired” and other monologues while studying abroad at the American University of Cairo in Egypt.

Sahar described living in Cairo as “the first time I was seeing the U.S. from the outside, and how violent the U.S. was.” She had never lived without family before, though she acquired her bachelor’s degree at the University of Miami (with a triple major in religious studies, political science, and English literature!) and her master’s degree at the University of Chicago. Watching cheesy family dramas on TV in Cairo, she realized for the first time “how we do violence very well in the United States.” Meanwhile, she was also experiencing what it felt like to blend in for the first time; earnestly wondering about her ancestral roots, strangers would ask her, “Where are you really from?” The freedom not to perform a perfect stereotype of Muslim femininity liberated her to express negative feelings like aggression and indignation in public– another first.

Upon returning to the U.S., Sahar became frustrated with professors who were interested in studying the Middle East and yet behaved uncomfortably around her in general. “Why are you so interested in the subject of ‘Muslim,’ but you’re not interested in me?” she wanted to know. Her experiences gave her the idea to create a platform where Muslim women could give voice to the everyday, insidious psychological violence they sustain.

In the U.S., her team has overcome many hurdles both from within and outside the Muslim community during public performances. At a prominent Miami bookstore where the unapologetically outspoken Jamaican-Chinese poet Staceyann Chin (whose poem, “Homophobia,” was assigned for last week’s readings on race) had just performed the week prior, the manager cut out the microphone for the Hijabi Monologues performance when a white patron complained about Muslim women cursing on stage. In another performance in Washington, DC, Sahar had to concede to bleeping out the F-word with a bike horn to quell the public’s discomfort over Muslim women “behaving badly.”

Within the Muslim American community, the Hijabi Monologues have provoked both enmity and empathy in unexpected ways. Audiences demand to witness either the “real Islam”– i.e., terrorism, ISIS, etc.– or Muslim women as devoted saints, angels of the household. Sahar described keeping secret a monologue titled “Light on My Face,” in which a hijabi woman decides not to keep a pregnancy conceived outside of marriage, because she “didn’t want the Muslim community to feel betrayed, but also wanted to make sure women had a breathing space.” To her surprise, whereas some female viewers bristled at other women not being represented piously, many elders– notably, one older man who “was the image of the stereotypical Muslim male who would be oppressive and unsympathetic to women’s experience”– regularly thank Sahar for constructing such a complex vision of Muslim femininity.

Writing about serious, sensitive issues from a humorous perspective also carries real risks, she warned. “We know our communities best, so we know how to make fun of our communities best,” she said. But she also named numerous instances when risk incurred costs. In one, a director tried to convince Sahar to perform only “Light on My Face” for a segment in her film because, in the documentarian’s words, “it’s not every day you hear about Muslim girls getting knocked up;” Sahar was relieved when the Hijabi Monologues didn’t appear in the film at all.

Xenophobia against Muslims long presaged 9/11, Sahar explained. She remembered a hate-mongering film called Obsessionwhich attested to “how inherently violent Muslims are,” being freely distributed in her part of Florida, and then a mosque being gas-mobbed in Ohio; in the first Gulf War in the early 1990s, a boy at school named Hussein became Omar to disidentify himself from Saddam Hussein; and even with Malcolm X popularizing the Nation of Islam as early as the 1950s, non-Muslim Americans have all too easily conflated religion with fanatical terrorism, and Islam with any non-white races.

Sahar recently finished her higher education with a Ph.D. in Middle Eastern, South Asian, and African Studies at Columbia. Now she is working on a production of the Hijabi Monologues to be staged in London, England this September. If you’re curious to see more of the monologues, like “Hitting on a Hijabi” (a nice analog to Junot Díaz’s “How to Date a Brown Girl (Black Girl, White Girl, or Halfie)” from a couple weeks ago), subscribe to their YouTube stream.

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Our second but no less esteemed guest, and first “TA for the day” this semester, Rahat Huda graduated from Stuyvesant High School this spring and the Kaleidoscope Project’s inaugural cohort last summer. A new initiative for the 2017 Kaleidoscope Project, TAs for the day are alums who return to our summer workshop to pass on tried-and-true methods for achieving success in high school and college applications; in some cases, they are willing to become peer mentors for new K-scopers pursuing the college process.

Recipient of regional gold key and national gold medal awards from the Scholastic Art & Writing Awards, which current Kaleidoscope students may want to apply to this winter, Rahat was also a mentee and intern at Girls Write Now, a nonprofit that supports aspiring teen women writers in New York City. This fall, she will be attending Middlebury College in Middlebury, Vermont as a Posse Scholar, a nationwide scholarship program that funds tuition in full at partner universities and provides young scholars a “posse,” a diverse group of talented peers, in which to navigate college together.

Rahat shared her insights alongside Julissa Nuñez and Milana Khaitova, two college-bound high school graduates currently in the Kaleidoscope Project who will be attending Smith College in Northampton, MA and Hunter College in New York City, respectively, this fall. Most of their takeaways are captured in the slideshow above, but here are the practical lessons that really stayed with me:

Visiting College Campuses

  • Ideally, you would visit colleges that interest you this summer and fall.
  • To find out information for applications and campus visits, type in keywords like the name of the college that interests you and “admissions” or “campus tour” into Google.
  • Campus tours are free; you could sign yourself up for one at Columbia before class, for example.
  • Colleges also often host high school students with current undergraduates for free in dorms during the school year.
  • However, colleges are hardly ever willing to pay for a student’s transportation to/from their location. If you want to visit a campus farther away but you and your family don’t have the financial means to do so, here are some alternatives to consider:
    • Ask your high school guidance counselor about whether your school has any funding for college visits, which might not be widely publicized.
    • Focus on visiting different kinds of colleges in the New York metropolitan area, which you can visit easily and which will give you a sense of how different kinds of college campuses feel. Granted, the overcrowded space of the city distorts size for everything, but take this grouping as an example:
    • Once you’ve visited different kinds of universities, you’ll have some sense of what to expect of an academic space based on its type, even if you can’t visit a school in person because it’s far away or in another state.
    • You can also look up photos of universities that interest you (especially Google Earth) and check out their social media (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube) to get a sense of a campus’s personality.

Letters of Recommendation

  • If you’ll be entering your final year of high school this fall and haven’t already requested letters of recommendation from teachers, you should make a plan for doing so ASAP.
  • Choose recommenders who a) know you and your most recent work best (focus on junior and maybe sophomore year) and b) can either attest to your strengths in your intended major OR comment positively on your performance across the humanities and sciences, if you’re still figuring out what you want to study.
  • If you have your teacher’s email address, you should politely request a recommendation over the summer (if you want feedback on a draft of a request, email it to me first!).
  • If you’ll need to wait until school recommences, ready your pitch and make a plan for checking off this box by the first week of school.

Other Application Requirements

  • If you struggle with standardized tests, consider prioritizing applications to schools that don’t even require test scores for admission.
  • Write a personal statement that spotlights the values, mindset, and personality you would contribute to the community– not unlike the “What makes you different?” question you answered to get into the Kaleidoscope Project! And remember, both Rahat and I are willing and eager to give feedback on personal statement drafts! Make it a personal goal to get a draft to one of us by the end of the summer.
  • If an on-campus interview is required, capitalize on it as an opportunity to explain any obvious gaps in your academic performance and/or resumé.
  • Instead of spreading your resumé thin (community service! internships! honors! clubs!), think about your interests in terms of academic engagement and leadership skills. You don’t need to have a resumé a mile long– you just need to do a few things you really care about really well, and be able to talk about your passions compellingly!
  • This summer, double-check whether your favorite colleges require any supplementary essays. You should devote nearly the same amount of care and polish to supplementary essays as you do to the personal essay you submit for your Common Application.

Financial Aid & Scholarships

  • Look into national scholarship applications early and create a spreadsheet for keeping track of deadlines, application requirements, and benefits (ex: “full scholarship” is a wishy-washy term– for some, it actually means full tuition but not room and board is covered, whereas others cover everything).
    • Some scholarships, like Posse, have prerequisites, like being nominated for consideration in the scholarship in the first place. If you’re interested in being nominated as a Posse Scholar, talk to me or Rahat, who both have connections that could benefit you.
    • Questbridge is very similar to Posse, emphasizing inclusivity and leadership as central values, and it also covers room and board; however, not all Questbridge Scholars get to attend their “first choice” of college, because awards are prioritized based on a “match system” (meaning, a student who names a less prestigious college in the Questbridge network as their first choice has a much better shot at receiving a scholarship than the student who lists only Ivy Leagues).
  • Kaleidoscope Project students are especially lucky for being New York State residents! Not only are there many kinds of need-based college aid for NY residents, but by the time some of you apply to high school (2019?), Governor Cuomo’s recently pledged Excelsior Scholarship, promising free in-state tuition for students from families making less than $125,000/year, should be in effect.
  • Private universities, especially small liberal arts colleges, can be less generous with financial aid at first because the sizes of their endowments vary (an “endowment” basically refers to the college’s investment fund– the amount of money, largely from donations, it has to devote to all necessary costs, like professors’ salaries and students’ financial aid). If a private school is your top choice, but their “financial aid packages,” the combination of scholarships, grants, loans, and work-studies they assemble for you, are less than stunning, don’t give up! Do your research:
    • Merit-based scholarships are often specific to certain institutions, so you should look up possibilities for your favorite colleges this summer– especially if their merit scholarships require different deadlines and additional essays. Google the name of the school and “merit scholarship” to locate resources. Some colleges automatically consider every applicant, with no additional effort, for merit-based scholarships based on essays, transcripts, and standardized test scores.
    • Of course, there are also athletic scholarships as well; if you’re a top-notch athlete, you should talk to your coach about how to be scouted for a scholarship.
    • Keep an eye out for colleges that identify as need-blind” or “need-sensitive.” There are catches to both identifications.
      • “Need-blind” means that your financial need won’t factor into your eligibility in the admission committee’s eyes, which is good because it means you can’t be rejected immediately for your socioeconomic background. However, “need-blind” also does not guarantee that the college can fully remit a student’s demonstrated financial need, so many students who are accepted often find themselves choosing less costly options anyway.
      • “Need-sensitive,” on the other hand, means that financial need can be reason for a school rejecting an applicant. But at the same time, acceptance of a high-need applicant means the school is more willing to remunerate the full cost of the need the student has demonstrated.
      • In short, if you apply to a need-blind school and can’t get them to give you a full ride despite having no college savings, don’t be discouraged; consider any loan (especially government loans, which are much more stable than private for-profit lenders) and work-study options the university offers you alongside grants (which you never have to pay back). On the other hand, if you don’t get into a need-sensitive school despite being a high achiever, don’t beat yourself up about it– it very well might be that the school just couldn’t provide the financial backing you needed from them.
    • Don’t be afraid to call up the Financial Aid Office at your favorite school and ask about whether there are any funding options you’re not aware of.
      • Ask your guidance counselor or parent for help if you’re nervous about making the call yourself.
      • Be prepared to make your case for why you really want to attend this school. You need to make it clear that would be an outstanding addition to their community but simply can’t afford the tuition with the financial aid package they’ve initially calculated. Be diplomatic, patient and earnest, not demanding and aggravated (even though the money situation is stressful).
      • Upon calling, if the Financial Aid Office won’t budge on reviewing the package they’ve offered you, you might learn you qualify for a first-come, first-serve funding pool, like the Higher Education Opportunity Program (specific to New York State) or another institution-based “opportunity program,” which have been devised by universities in recent years to accept more students from underrepresented backgrounds.
  • Remember, it is extremely common for colleges to refuse financial aid for room and board, which seems hypocritical. What college student goes to college without living and eating in the dorms? And why does living and eating in the dorms have to cost ~$10,000-12,000 on average? But again, don’t give up hope; student loans are becoming an increasingly common (and therefore, normal) financial burden for young adults to shoulder, and there are A LOT of bumpers built into loan repayment plans to help you manage your debt.
    • For example, a “grace period” straight after college suspends your loans for long enough for you to get a job.
    • If you continue your schooling with a master’s degree or Ph.D., your loans go into “deferral”— meaning, you have a certain time period wherein you do not have to be paying on your undergraduate loans since you’re still studying (and not making much money– this is the situation I’m currently in).
    • Income-based repayment plans” allow you to adjust your monthly loan payments to align with a reasonable amount you should be expected to pay, based on your salary.
    • Consolidating” your loans can vastly diminish the “interest” over time (racking up “interest” is the most expensive element of any kind of debt– it’s the additional monthly fee the bank charges you for not having the debt fully paid).
    • In general, $30,000 is the amount of loan debt the average American student carries right now. I just looked up my own balance, and it’s $42,181.17— 140% of the national average! On the one hand, the number terrifies me. On the other hand, you’ve seen me: I’m living my best life in New York City, far from starving or homelessness, and I’ve been privileged with an education fifteen-year-old me would never have known to even dream up.

The bottom line is this: if you really want a college– and the college really wants YOU too— you’ll figure money out. Get in first, then worry about the rest!

Besides this blog post, don’t forget the college preparation resources available in the “menu” dropdown for this blog:

Whew, that was a lot, huh? I’ll see you for our rescheduled class TOMORROW, Wednesday, July 19, 6:30-8pmremember, bring back reading packets for both race and disabilityAnd our deepest thanks go to Sahar and Rahat again for sharing so much with us.


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