To the Weary College Student

To the stressed-out college student,

It is during meager study breaks that you give yourself a pep talk,

A “just keep going” kind of pep talk,

A “hey, I know you haven’t slept well, but you got this” kind of pep talk.

It is during every minute of free time that you snatch the opportunity to study,

Before work, after work, before bedtime.

It is during the classes leading up to the exam that you gaze at the professor,

Counting the hours before you can sleep.

When every study hour has passed, and you wake up on exam day,

I challenge you to carry an infectious optimism from your bedroom to the very campus of your university,

Because you were willing to sit on the edge of your limits for long enough to make it to this moment,

Prepared.

Before you open the exam packet, imagine.

Imagine a positive reaction to the test results,

Imagine yourself celebrating the week’s accomplishments with friends.

I’ve learned that we are more terrified of the possibility of achieving our greatest ambitions than failing.

Could we be as capable as we envision ourselves to be?

As I approach the conclusion of the midterms week,

I would like to honor the bags underneath my eyes,

The tireless pep talks,

The study sessions and “just a little bit more” moments.

I have not only epitomized the stereotypical image of the weary college student

but also achieved my midterm goals while being just that.

Let me wear my sweat pants as a symbol of relentless effort.

We achieve academic success only if we’re willing to crawl to the edge of our limits,

And gaze at the gray possibilities.

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.

 

Feigned Optimism

The alarm begins to sound at 7:30a.m., as the winter doldrums tempt the eyes to close. The body begs for sleep, but the mind is wiser than to let itself drift off. Suddenly, the brain recalls the myriad tasks that must be completed. Classes bright and early starting at 9:00a.m. and work until 8:00p.m. Yes. 8:00p.m. My finish-line. The end to all this bustle. The time that I can prepare to go to sleep again. I crave the feeling of clean sheets against a weary body. But where do I find the starting line?

Just peel the blanket away from you slowly. Let your mind wander a bit. Thoughts wrap themselves around the prospect of breakfast, of listening to my favorite songs on the way to school, of my plans for the weekend.

I get through my gen-eds (Math, History, English) and complete my work as a math instructor at 8:00p.m. On my way home, I remember a valuable lesson I learned from running cross-country.

Suddenly, I can’t remember why I am tired. I can’t remember that I’m struggling to get through the week. Rather, I am empowered by the fight I have left in me. It may only be the 2nd week of the spring semester, but I can already imagine the summer break… for during the break, it is not the restless nights of free writing that I will remember… or the rush to travel from school to work… or the wish to just go to sleep and shut it all out. It is the triumphs of my freshman year at George Mason University that I will remember… wrapping my mind around discrete mathematics until the concepts click. To my professors, to my students, to my employer, and most important, to myself: I wear these dark circles with pride. These “I just rolled out of bed” winter leggings, this “just get out of the house already” t-shirt. May I repeat the successes of my past. Better yet, let me surpass them. Let me find myself on the Dean’s list, let me surround myself with loved ones on the weekend, let me spend hours on homework assignments that trigger a thirst for knowledge. It is in these activities that I find balance.

So I will wake up for my 9:00a.m. review session in a few hours and demonstrate an eagerness to learn. And to all my classmates: you’ll likely remember me by “the crazy girl who said the homework was fun.” It’s a lot more exciting to fight for optimism than to give in to indifference. Try it. I dare you.

Planning for the Future

Hours fly as we converse under dim lights at a newly-opened Japanese restaurant, and our plates are nearly empty save for streaks of sauce. I don’t notice that the sun has set until I press the home button on my iPhone and see that it’s 6 o’clock. I remain planted in my chair, still, anticipating the next burst of laughter, or an astounding piece of advice that remains grounded in my mind like the dense air of a breezy autumn night. I tell Ms. Scharl, my former English teacher, about my concerns regarding the future. Informing her about my career and academic ambitions, I notice as fear and uncertainty coalesce. My greatest ambition is to live independently, but the only way to reach this destination is to successfully travel along the unpaved path of academia and career search. I am not a materialist, but rather a minimalist, and unfortunately, affording the cost of living is the prerequisite to living independently. And so the expenses will pile on, but Ms. Scharl soon shushes the voices of my uncertainties. She says, “Naima, you’re a go-getter. You’re going to get a good job.” Her words hold abundant weight, as they rest firmly at the bottom of my heart. Uncertainty withers away in veins that once pulsated arrhythmically. So her words rotate in my mind and follow me before I tuck myself into bed. The mind loves to plan for the future, often forgetting about the present and questioning, “What if?” Hushhh. Naima, you’re a go-getter. My brain ignites a chain-reaction of positive self-affirmations: I am confident. I am strong. I will succeed. Rinse and repeat.

I aspire to earn a Master’s degree in Information Technology (IT) at George Mason University so that I may become a college professor. My passion for teaching and being a leader among a group of individuals are aptitudes I would like to apply in the workplace. This profession enables me to choose a wide range of public universities nationwide, so I will have the opportunity to live in other states if I so choose. And even if I change my mind about teaching at the college level, I will have flexibility in choosing a wide range of professions worldwide, as Information Technology is a high-demand field of expertise.

I am thankful for those who continue to encourage me to fulfill my passions and to those who support me unconditionally. Thank you, Ms. Scharl, for fueling the fire in this 18-year-old. And when I am holding my diploma in a few years from now, I will thank and remember you. Your confidence in me is unmeasurable. Thank you so much for helping me take another step closer to achieving my greatest ambitions, for surely, this act of kindness cannot be repaid. But rather, it is vital for me to pay it forward. So when I look at all of my current students at Mathnasium, and even the ones in my future workplace, I recognize my responsibility to encourage my students just as you have encouraged yours. Thank you.

Why Eliminating Creativity in Public Schools is Dangerous

Staring at the clock, I acknowledged that I was required to be in the classroom for the full 90-minute period. Work in silence. Don’t take breaks; you’ll lose precious minutes. My body was firmly planted like a tree trunk in my own seat. “Don’t get up without raising your hand.” “Make sure to sign your planner before leaving class.” These regulations stole opportunities for me to develop independence. Mandating that a teenager carry a hallway pass when traveling from the classroom to a bathroom implies that the student cannot be trusted to conduct themselves appropriately and responsibly. Although these regulations enable teachers to hold students accountable for their actions, they deprive us of feeling that we are responsible for our own minds and bodies.  These rules do not serve to better prepare students to exemplify independence and self-accountability in their college years and beyond.

As a current freshman at George Mason University, I am fully responsible for my schedule, the quality of my education, and most important, my overall success and well-being. However, I often remind myself that no individual nor institution requires me to be in a school or workplace. It is difficult to feel truly independent after several years of biannual lessons on school rules and reminders to follow trivial regulations.

How do we develop independence within younger students without overwhelming them with responsibilities? Assigning self-conducted projects that require creative-thinking could catalyze the development of student independence. During my junior year of high school, my Creative Writing teacher gave his students full control over their progress as writers. In his class, I was encouraged to create my blog. This site began as a way for me to share running tips but evolved into a medium of creative story-telling. During the beginning of the school year, I chose to stay in my comfort zone by writing short narratives. However, over the course of several months, I had written poems, plays, persuasive articles, and more. Creativity was a clearing in which ideas and opportunities were limitless, as there was no “right” or “wrong” way to think.

Creativity should become a key component of school curriculums, as it helps students develop responsibility for their own learning and encourages them to venture beyond their academic comfort level. Creative-thinking is crucial in implementing effective problem-solving skills in and out of the classroom. Eliminating creativity in school leaves students to believe that there is only one correct way to complete a task or assignment. But through the years that I battled an anxiety disorder, I had to brainstorm multiple solutions to escape a classroom in which my health and safety was put at risk. Despite an awareness of my growing discomfort and declining health, I remained seated in that unsafe classroom. My mind flooded with thoughts of rules and regulations. I have to stay here until the bell rings. I have to complete my assignment so I don’t get a poor grade. But if we change the narrative from “have to” to “having the freedom to,” we can build students who know how to solve various conflicts that aren’t mentioned in the Student Rights and Responsibilities Handbook.

We have taught students how to walk in straight lines and speak quietly in hallways. But do we discuss more critical issues, such as using creative-thinking skills to maintain our health and safety? Can we encourage them to “think outside the box” in situations when strict rules and regulations do not address exceptional conflicts? Can we eliminate “right” and “wrong” to encourage a trial-and-error approach to solving personal challenges?

As I am now halfway through my first college semester, I am deeply thankful for my success thus far. But when I mention “success,” what comes to mind? Is it my grades, or my grade point average? Although I am content with my academic marks, my success is accredited to mediums of creative expression. Through the art of writing, dance, and yoga, I have overcome mental health issues and personal challenges. Without creativity, I would have no choice but to walk the fine line of red tape, unaware that self-discovery and growth awaits beyond its boundaries.

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.