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.

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.

 

Puzzle Pieces: A Creative Short Story

The puzzle pieces that lay scattered represent who I am—my passions and the very practices that help me stay true to myself. They somehow manage to return to this fragmented state, as I hold onto the parts of myself by a single thread. Through the blur of schoolwork and empty days, I sometimes remember to breathe. Meditation pulls me back to the ground, returning oxygen to my lungs. Have you ever tried to complete menial tasks underwater? I have a tendency to get sucked into believing that time is inadequate, that I’ll never have enough of it. So I cross out one day after the other on my calendar and wonder where I went. The edges of the puzzle pieces are frayed because of the myriad attempts to make them fit… to create one, cohesive picture. They lay in fragments, still, as I turn my head in a panic to glance at the clock. The minutes are running away and fear comes rushing back. What if I don’t finish all my work? What if I receive a poor grade? What if my professors will be disappointed?

puzzle-pieces

I beat myself up with negative reinforcements to complete my schoolwork only to realize that I’ve been here before… too many times. But if I relaxed and worked at my own pace, wouldn’t I be more productive? Logic kicks emotion in the face but won’t always stay for the whole fight.

Lately, I’ve been putting some of the pieces together, and I might see the picture of myself soon. I can see myself dancing in my yoga studio, as lyrics crawl through my lungs and into my heart. My mind’s eye watches as I walk on my school’s campus with a carefully planned outfit and an infectious smile. I can see myself running through Lorton Station and sometimes down the hills of Fairfax city.

I wish I could complete the puzzle in a single instant. But it’s difficult to stay true to yourself when you’re being pulled in a million directions. Wake up, do homework, go to work, sleep, and do it all over again. All over again. And if you do it all in a hurry, you won’t ever realize that you lost yourself. And all the puzzle pieces will by lying on the floor, and you won’t even bother to pick them up… until something hits you. It shakes you out of oblivion and asks what the hell you were doing with your life. That voice will ask, “You knew that the way you were living was destroying you,” and you will respond, “yes.” Embarrassed, you look down at the fragments of yourself and scramble to put them back together. All the while, you must resist falling into the vortex in which you live by your fears, not your innate desire to be true to yourself.

You don’t have to worry. The pieces will come back together but certainly not by force. Pray, and you will find yourself again. Run, and you will find yourself in the rhythm of your footsteps, your gentle in-breaths. Dance and tumble, and you will find yourself in free expression. Slow down and forget time. It’s not about how many minutes are left on the clock, but rather, the value of your time spent. So if you need to cry, prepare yourself for a storm. But remember that the sun will always be waiting for you. Your prayers are valuable, your mind is resourceful, and your heart is compassionate. Don’t lose yourself in the whirlwind of everyday responsibilities… because maybe in the debris of the storm, you are waiting to be found. You’ve been here all along… just remember to breathe. The pieces are slowly coming back together.

puzzle-pieces2

Ever-Evolving Perceptions of the Self

Self-acceptance is crucial to developing a healthy perception of who we are. But throughout my pre-adolescent years (and even today), my self-perception often clashes with the ideas that other people form of who I am. The eighth grade, as I remember it, was a year when I was content with who I was. In my mind’s eye, I walk confidently past Ms. Lawhon’s pre-algebra class. I was (and still am) the girl who would strike up a conversation with anyone, crack a joke with the classmate sitting next to her, and a student who worked tirelessly to be successful in and out of the classroom. But through new phases of my life, such as the beginning of high school and the transition to college, I tend to question and form new perceptions of who I am.

One of the greatest challenges in developing a positive self-image was my decision to wear the Hijab. I remember walking into Information Systems class on the second day of freshman year and imagining the perception of my eighth grade-self fade away. Was I truly the bubbly girl with fluffy, black hair that complimented her smile? I could no longer see that image, as my head was now covered by a pashmina scarf. Perhaps defining myself by the way I looked was a bit destructive. But I was still the same person, wasn’t I? The only difference now was that I was in a new environment with students who looked far too grown for me to label them my “peers.” I shrunk nervously in my seat. I was intimidated because my once-shining self-perception was now a mirror through which I couldn’t see myself. Over several months, I found a solution that would take years to accomplish: to develop a self-image that complimented my wish to represent my faith well. But the greatest accomplishment I achieved on this seemingly-endless journey was giving myself the power to define myself the way I chose. I could no longer hear the voices of those whose religious stereotypes contradicted my self-perception. They can say whatever they want, but I will never give up, I thought.

Sometimes, as I run my fingers through my hair, I’ll imagine what it’d be like if I didn’t wear the Hijab. My side-swept bangs and thick layers were much too beautiful to cover up, weren’t they? Think again. Bullies pushed me to think more deeply about my commitment to my beliefs and the way I represented myself. The toughest part of this journey was digging deeper within myself to realize that there was more to me than what I looked like. There was character, a bright soul, and a compassionate heart that strives to treat all people fairly.

So as I walked through countless classroom doors during freshman year, I learned how to carry myself with more dignity. All of my strength, all of my pride, all of my honor was built on the idea that I—I had the power to define myself. Today, it’s vital to maintain self-acceptance and a clear perception of who I am, as I navigate the highs and lows of my college years.

A couple of days ago, I went to the pool in my burquini (modest bathing suit). I’ll admit, it did bother me that other people stared and may have been judging me. But I remind myself that anyone’s pre-conceived notions about who I am—because of my religion or ethnicity—is not worth worrying about. However, I do find it baffling that those who stereotype any minority group forget that underneath any religious attire is a human, a person who has accomplished countless feats throughout their lifetime, an individual who has friends and family who care about them.

Can Sports Help Students do well in School?

Running cross-country in high school yielded greater benefits than improving my mental and physical well-being. Balancing time for the sport with academics helped me build a determined mindset. As I am a college student now, I am confident that I will be able to manage fatigue, long days, and piles of work. I’ve had enough experience with pushing past internal conflict to achieve academic success. This skill can only be learned through experience. Anyone can say that they can stay up late to get work done. But when you’ve already put in eight hours of work at school, three hours at cross-country practice, and every bit of energy during interval workouts, you’ll build a greater level of strength. Your mind might be half-asleep at the end of the day, but you better believe that your history assignment will be turned in the next morning. And that you sure as anything will be waking up at 6:30a.m. just to do it all over again.

On the first day of IT 104, my professor informed the class that a 1500-word, APA style research paper is due in four weeks. Sounds pretty daunting, ay? Let’s talk about writing a quality, 1500-word essay at 3a.m. not because you’re fighting for your grades but because you’re fighting for your beliefs. Let’s talk waking up early because I’ve gotten up at 5:40a.m. on race day mornings when the crisp fall breeze tempts the eyes to close. Put naps aside until after you’ve beat your greatest competition (yourself) on that dewy cross-country course.

My sister informed me that college will be “hard.” So I meet all challenges with the persistence of a distance runner, the thoughtfulness of a writer, and the mind of a student who is determined to thrive as a George Mason Patriot.

Overwhelming Gratitude

Exhausted from my early Communications class, I recline on my bed. I roll onto my stomach, enjoying the feeling of clean sheets against my skin. Two hours slowly pass, and I open my eyes at 6:00p.m. My mind craves stimulation. I pull on my athletic tights and Under Armour shirt and drive to the gym. As I poise myself on the elliptical, I encourage a peaceful self-awareness. Chin up, chest open, arms swinging back and forth. I breathe deeply, guiding my mind toward positive thinking. I walk my thoughts into the golden gate of past and present occurrences. Cross-country races. I can hear the voice of a female spectator cheering, “Come on, Hayfield!” Thoughts of being content at George Mason University. The encouragement of fellow Patriots echoes in my mind, as they told me, “You’re doing great for your first week!” And of course, those little moments when tears of joy collected along my eyelid. Every time I try to explain why I am so overjoyed to be at Mason, I struggle to find words. But I can summarize it into the following quote: “Verily, after every hardship, there is ease.” (Qur’an 94:5).

Every students’ high school career has its fair share of highs and lows, but I underwent some particularly difficult circumstances that sometimes hindered my ability to learn. I am thankful to have developed problem-solving skills and to apply critical thinking to everyday conflicts. Being at Mason is the sunshine that breaks through gray skies after the storm is over. The storm is over. And I knew it was when I found I could finally feel comfortable in a classroom again and to express myself freely. The storm is over. And I knew it was as I noted that I am encouraged and supported by the Patriot community. So I wake up early on Monday mornings and go on runs around campus. I let oxygen fill my lungs as I stride up and down the beautiful hills of Fairfax city. This run, this honest self-expression is not only a celebration of my time at Mason. It is a celebration of life, a statement of gratitude for becoming stronger despite adversity. Today, I hold my head higher than before, as I observe the gradual changes in heartrate as I work out. The repetitive motion of swinging my arms back and forth calms me, and I increase the resistance of the machine. I let lyrics flow into my mind, filling my head with positive thoughts. The musician sings, “You can still be what you want to. You’ve got a warm heart. You’ve got a beautiful brain.” The sun illuminated the healthy green trees, as I sat at a table in front of the Johnson Center yesterday. Poised and confident, I observed passersby who rushed to their destinations. A woman walked past me, briefly making eye contact and sharing a warm smile. After she faded into the distance, my eyes welled up with tears of joy because once again, I was reminded that I am part of a healthy community. I am free. Free to express myself, seek support if needed, and to become successful without any destructive obstacles in the way.

Increasing the incline of the elliptical, I continue to listen to my body. The voice of a soulful singer flows into my mind. “You’ve got a warm heart. You’ve got a beautiful brain.” At the end of my day, I share this blogpost and wipe away tears of joy as I write. I am so thankful to be a Patriot, for my ability to thrive on the beautiful campus, for the chance to become the best version of myself. The tears fall unapologetically. The music still echoes in my head. And the visualization of sunlight breaking through trees in front of the Johnson Center comes to mind once more. I can sit on a bench outside the Performing Arts Building, or in a lecture room in Innovation Hall, or in a classroom in East Building. No matter where I am, I am overwhelmed with gratitude. Dismounting the elliptical, my beating heart eventually fades to a resting calm.

Trial-and-Error

During the months that I was learning how to drive, I craved the opportunity to sit in the front seat and steer myself in any direction I chose. The yellow paper that reads ‘180-day Temporary License’ is a reminiscence of my drive toward personal freedom. But the first time I nervously shrunk into the driver seat, I accepted that making mistakes was an inherent part of learning. As I performed myriad reckless turns, I wondered if the steering wheel was secretly working against me. I let myself err before I could correct.  Overcoming a personal health issue I have faced required a similar approach.

I spent months pondering what the root-cause of the issue could be, as I often returned home with a flat tire. Without an understanding of the problem, there was no chance of reaching a solution. So I ran a trial-and-error experiment, using my mind as both a battleground and laboratory. My resources ran short, lacking in fuel and knowledge of how to successfully steer myself through the process of self-understanding. I panicked when my tires hit a pothole. I fought to ignore the issue, the occasional disruptions in physical and personal comfort I experienced as I sat in the driver’s seat. It was a pain that demanded to be felt, an uncertainty I often met as I doubted my ability to perform careful turns. I wished I could let other drivers know that I was inexperienced—that my errors could cause damage to other vehicles. But I continued to drive, confidently tapping the accelerator as I perfected turns and lane-changes. Today, I pride myself on being a safe and responsible driver, but I’ve travelled through countless unpaved roads to reach this destination.

The drivers that whiz by me before I embark on daily outings share a commonality. Our driver’s licenses are representative of the learning process—its smooth roads and unpaved paths, its epiphanies and its downfalls. We must allow ourselves to mess up, make uncontrolled turns and hasty accelerations. We must stop hitting the brakes and begin to accelerate toward a better version of ourselves. We need to take hold of the steering wheel and leave doubt behind.

A few days ago, I told my mother, “I don’t know how to park. My driving instructor never taught me how.” But ruthless potholes, impatient drivers who honk at their own leisure, and speed limits that exceed my level of comfort have opened my mind. Learning is most effective when we actively apply ourselves to a given situation. When I told my mother, “I don’t know how,” I meant, “I just need time to figure it out.” Let me mess up, and then try again. And again. Until the clean parallel lines nicely run along the tires of my car.

Dear Reader, through the journeys I’ve travelled—in a classroom desk, behind the wheel, and in front of a keyboard where I write my stories—I have made leaps toward personal growth. You, too, can steer yourself in any direction that delivers freedom and happiness into your heart. You are no longer the passenger. You sit confidently in the driver’s seat, as your mind floods with an eagerness to learn and expand. Get up and seek any opportunity you wish to pursue. Don’t wait, don’t say, “what if.” There is no better time than now. Just let go of the brake.

 

 

Freedom

Everyone wants to hear an uplifting graduation speech, not a five-minute spiel on the follies of the public school system.  But to me and many of my friends, receiving our diplomas symbolized the relief that we have long anticipated to meet a new freedom. I would love to talk about the upsides of my high school career—the cross-country races that delivered a rush of euphoria, the inspirational students and teachers I’ve had the honor to work with, the projects that helped me realize my eagerness to be an active learner. But as I exited Hayfield Secondary on graduation day, I imagined what the future held. I want to enjoy the summer air on the campus of George Mason University as I walk to class. I look forward to pulling the sleeves of my sweater over my hands as I exit the Patriot Center after a school-sponsored poetry slam. I aspire to balance academic work with building new friendships and maintaining old ones. Overall, I want to feel that I am part of a greater community, an aspect of the high school experience of which I often felt deprived.

On my last day of school, I asked several teachers to sign my yearbook. Mr. Viviani, a dedicated track coach and avid athlete. Ms. Passino, a bubbly English teacher who promotes an inclusive environment. Mrs. Poquis, an intelligent and experienced English teacher who demonstrates powerful leadership skills. And many, many more. As I read the uplifting remarks in my yearbook, I was dumbfounded. A substantial portion of my school schedule was spent with teachers who didn’t express their support for me that it was shocking to meet with those who did. It almost became normal to me that some staff members found it suitable to play a passive role in the school community and, well, just let time pass before the clock hit 2:45P.M. But it is crucial to work with those who strive to create an inclusive, uplifting, and productive environment rather than to criticize those who fail to do so.

Today, I attended my friend’s graduation party and met with parents and graduates who live up to the values that our high school represents. Feelings of support, care, and inclusiveness hung in the air. But it felt so foreign to me, to simply be asked if I was doing alright (as I had been sick for the past few days), to be embraced in the arms of countless individuals, and to be uplifted by members of the Hayfield community. And in the midst of laughter, conversation, and music, I remembered another adult who had supported me for many years, my cross-country coach. Before the graduation ceremony began, Coach Geraty said, “Hey Naima, it’s been a pleasure.” We exchanged expressions of gratitude and a heartfelt goodbye. As I met with these supportive individuals, I realized I had spent so much time in the dark that I forgot there was light.

The signatures in my yearbook symbolize a goal that I will satisfy as a college student. I will surround myself with teachers, peers, and friends who have a genuine desire to promote a productive learning environment. I will promote values that are vital for a healthy school, such as inclusiveness and freedom of expression.

As I walked onto the stage to receive my diploma, I thought of all the times I had imagined this moment. I didn’t know how to feel. Should I smile, or just carry on in the blur of short-lived applause? The diploma in my hand was tangible freedom from a staff member and classroom that triggered my anxiety time and time again (for reasons that are disclosed here). I felt that I was finally given permission to move forward—physically and emotionally—from the peaks and valleys of my high school days. I can now integrate myself as a part of an adult community at George Mason University where I will meet students who wear the green and gold with pride. I hope to meet individuals who demonstrate a genuine eagerness to learn, make a difference in the world, and take responsibility for the community.

Congratulations to the Class of 2016! I wish you all the best in your future endeavors.