The Persistent Academic

May 2016

I struggled to engage the mind, as a substantial workload presented itself. Lengthy rubrics and deadlines fueled a forest fire of doubt, and anxiety woke from its restless slumber. The word “can’t” flooded my mind, duplicating itself like countless pages being ejected from a printer… falling onto the expanse of a room void of confidence. I attempted to hush the subconscious mind, which was active in protest. The conscious mind was a fool to believe that its peaceful demonstration could repress such intimidation.

February 2017

I graduated from high school and have successfully completed my first semester of college. I am taking a course similar to the one of which I spoke several months ago. But there is one significant difference between the former and the latter course. I no longer encounter the mental roadblocks that once hindered my academic performance. Anxiety is a feeble enemy, particularly to the persistent academic.

Allow me to digress. I would like to mention that I earned an ‘F’ on my final exam in the class I discussed in May (and yes, I do mean, “earned”). But when I received my report card in the summer, I was not disappointed… because my ‘F’ was more than a letter grade. It was the purest symbol of trying and failing, and trying and failing, and trying again. It was a representation of my long-term fight against anxiety, and the many lessons I learned. I learned that my mental well-being is a greater priority than grades. I learned never to ignore my intuition, even if I can’t muster the words to explain the problem. I would rather receive an unsatisfactory letter grade and have grown intellectually than to earn an ‘A’ but not have achieved personal growth. Quite frankly, the aim of acquiring information is not to achieve an ideal result but to learn from the process.

On another note, it would bother me for others to perceive my academic success as a paved route. I am so thankful to have earned a spot on my school’s Dean’s list. But it is vital to note that high-achieving students often possess effective problem-solving abilities because they have had substantial experience tackling personal and academic challenges.

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Independent Thinker

What defines true independent thought? My history professor provided a cursory glance of the meaning of independent thought, and my intrigue followed me long after I had left the classroom. Before my professor remarked on this subject, I would have asserted that I am undeniably an independent thinker, which I can support not just by assertion (which holds no weight unless supported by action) but also by a distinguished character in a land of assimilationist culture.

In previous works, I asserted that I am not where I come from, which is to say that I do not identify with my origins, familial or cultural. It is a complex identity that coalesces diverse cultural identities with religious thought. It is quite simple for me to tell you that I am a Muslim-American female who grew up in Northern Virginia. But this title does not do justice in conveying my effort to reflect independent thought through various realms, such as creativity and self-expression.

When I was 14-years-old, thorough research on the hijab led me to making the decision to overtly represent my faith through dress. This mode of self-expression required that I learn how to not only build an identity of who I was as an American-Muslim but to also surround myself with those with whom I identified. But a startling aspect of this transformation were the questions I received, the most memorable of them being the following: “Why do you wear the hijab but your (female) family members don’t?”

Allow me to digress.

As I was growing up, I was very much an overthinker. But I didn’t understand all of the ill-informed suggestions that this question implied. I didn’t have the time to tailor my response to those who were either unwilling to consider my perspective or ignorant of major world religions.

My response stripped the issue of all of its wondrous complexity. “I chose to wear it, and my sisters didn’t. It’s a personal choice.”

To my dear, 14-year-old self. Indeed it is a personal choice. But allow me to say now the words I could not articulate when I was younger. I choose to wear the the hijab as a way to build an identity as a Muslim female. I choose to wear it as a representation of my modesty (of character and dress). Your question about why my family members and I don’t share the same practices implies that we don’t all make the same personal decisions.

Perhaps the reason why it was difficult for me to be at peace with the implications of this question was because, in most families, there exists a unity. That is to suggest unity of speech, cultural practices, religious thought, and more. However, this aspect does not exist in all familial structures, as I have had flexibility in determining my own modes of self-expression.

Allow me to reintroduce myself. I am Naima. I am a Muslim-American female. I am an artist, a writer, a blogger. I am a student attending a school in Northern Virginia. And I am not where I am come from. But I am from the diverse groups of people that I have worked with and befriended throughout my lifetime. I am from cross-country practices ending at 6pm on weekdays, from huddled masses of distance runners, from the starting gun… to the very finish line. I am from the tears of joy that spill over my eyelids as self-expression ignites a fire of creativity in my lungs, as I dance unabashedly in my local yoga studio.

If it is any fact that I can simplify, it is that I cannot streamline myself into a single, confined identification. A check box will not do justice in conveying this individuality of thought, of character, of dress…

Professor Schulze.

Can I define myself as an independent thinker, regardless of age?

Can I strip my thoughts from prejudice and external influence and think objectively, despite my demographics?

Can I consider myriad perspectives and use them to shape and re-shape my beliefs?

And if we may redirect our focus to the main question: what does it mean to be a true independent thinker? We cannot pluck ourselves from the earth, and thus, confidently assert that we are not influenced by politics, economics, or other external factors. Rather, we should make a habit of weighing diverse perspectives in order to achieve mental flexibility. We must use our minds as resources in guiding our choices in regards to our modes of self-expression. Only then do we achieve true independence of thought.

 

A Lifelong Pursuit of Knowledge

Time is irrelevant, as Professor Schulze perfectly summarizes George Satayana’s assertion that those who don’t learn history are doomed to repeat it. My mind browses memories that support Satayana’s statement: recent instances of racism on the very grounds of my university, intensifying political polarization, the abuse of executive power, and more. Professor Schulze repeats key points, and my mind completes its search, like a webpage that suddenly stops loading. My thoughts are so engaged in this lecture that it feels as though I am the only student who is physically present in the classroom. “Wow,” I whisper, in awe at the extent to which the classroom content is relevant to my personal life as well as modern politics. I am intellectually stimulated, yet appalled by my sudden eagerness to mentally invest myself in a subject that I have often labeled “uninteresting.” Perhaps my self-doubt hindered me from entering this realm of intellectual engagement. But if I overcame the fear of failing to grasp the material, I would be less reluctant to be mentally present in this classroom.

There is a pattern in my approach to acquiring complex information in the traditional classroom. I either commit substantial time and energy outside of class and dedicate myself to consulting external resources for help, or I become resigned and assert my inherent inability to successfully process and store the information in my long-term memory. “Won’t I just forget all of this stuff after the semester ends,” I often wonder. But I realize that pure memorization is not the objective of most college courses. If I successfully travel along the unpaved path of the acquisition of knowledge, then I will have met my semester-end goal. Regardless of the grade I earn in the course, I am more interested in my personal and intellectual growth than a transcript that provides a limited perspective of my work ethic.

What I find to be deeply compelling about the learning process is the conflicting notions about traits that define a successful student, as the word “success” is subjective. I have met countless students (some of which I have taught) whose main semester-goal is to “get good grades.” But if we invest our energy in the process instead of the result, then we gradually evolve into lifelong learners.

As a student, I would like to define my success not by grade point average, but rather, by my personal and intellectual growth in and out of the classrooms of George Mason University. It is this subjective measurement of achievement that makes the learning process more satisfying than earning high letter grades. I do not mean to assert that grades are unimportant and should be ignored. But we should not become so fixated on grades that we undermine the value of our own learning.

If we dedicate ourselves to the learning process, we will engage in habits of active learners, which include (but are not limited to) the following: drawing connections between classroom content and our personal and academic interests, pursuing studies that stimulate our creative and intellectual drive, active participation through classroom discussion, and more.

As I walk into English class after Professor Schulze’s lecture, I immediately begin a discussion about the assigned reading with a classmate. I lose track of time, as we laugh about humorous insight from the novel we’re studying. It is moments like these that make learning so satisfying, when acquiring knowledge feels more like a friendly discussion with peers. After class, I walk back to the parking lot with a friend, once again engaged in a meaningful, and nevertheless, enjoyable conversation. We say our goodbyes, and I eventually make it back to my car and start the engine. Mulling over the productive school day, I exhale as my muscles relax into the worn leather of the driver’s seat.