Shehla Fazili will begin graduate school at Yale in a few weeks. Before she leaves us, she shares some of her thoughts on her family, her school, and living in Oklahoma.
Where did you grow up?
I was born in Srinagar, Kashmir and about 2 months after I was born, my family immigrated to the United States. I spent the first 4 years of my life in New York, the next 4 years in Pennsylvania, and then my family moved to Oklahoma when I was about 8 years old. So I spent the largest portion of my childhood –ages 8-18– in Oklahoma.
What do you like about Oklahoma?
After living on the east and west coasts, I’ve always felt like the pace of life in Oklahoma is a lot slower. That is, the overall approach to work, productivity, etc is more relaxed. When I lived in California I found that the typical work day for most people in the San Francisco Bay Area is from 8am to about 6pm, and then they spend an hour or two commuting to and from work. In Oklahoma people seem to have a better work-life balance. Work day length and commute times are a lot shorter, and I think that’s what allows for better work-life balance–and that is definitely something I really appreciate.
Also, given that there are generally few trees and buildings in Oklahoma, you can see far more of the sky compared to more populous states, so I have always found the sunsets here uniquely stunning.
What do your parents do for a living? Do you have any brothers or sisters and if so, what is your relationship like?
My mom is a Neurologist and my dad is a Gastroenterologist.
I have one older brother. As we grow older, we continue to grow closer. He is one of my best friends and one of the biggest influences in my life. We’ve lived in different parts of the country for the past 9 years so our relationship has evolved quite a bit and continues to. He is one of my biggest fans, and has played a large role in shaping me into the person I am today.
Where did you go to high school? What kind of student were you?
I went to Edmond Santa Fe High School.
I was your typical straight-A student. I was a member of National Honor Society, served as Sophomore class Vice President and was regularly on the honor roll etc. I graduated as a Valedictorian in May of 2013.
What was your high school social group like?
I lived in the same district in Edmond since I began school there at age 8, so I went through elementary school, middle school, and high school with the same group of people. That said, I knew most of the people in my grade, and had known many of them for more than 6 or 7 years by the time we began high school together. I had the same close group of friends for much of this time, but I was also generally friends with most of the people in my grade.
Any problems in high school due to your religion?
Because I had known most of the people in my grade from a very young age, and they knew I was Muslim, I did not encounter any discrimination based on my faith in high school. When I did miss school for Eid, or Friday prayer etc., people would sometimes ask me what Eid is and what we do on these occasions. I remember a few instances when my teachers did not know what Eid is so I explained it to them, but they were always intrigued and respectful.
What was the Muslim population like at your high school?
I remember going through my year books each year and counting how many Muslims there were out of curiosity, and calculating it to be about 1% of the student population. So there were about 25 Muslims, on average. Most of them were either Pakistani or Bengali, and had lived in Oklahoma for many years.
Common questions you received in high school regarding your religion?
People often asked me why I would always wear full sleeve blouses and didn’t wear shorts. My explanation of modesty in Islam resonated well with most people, but I can remember a few instances in which people scoffed at my practice of this aspect of my faith.
“I… quickly realized that the more knowledge one obtains, the more one realizes how much one doesn’t know.”
Where did you obtain your undergraduate degree?
How did it feel leaving your family?
I’m really close to both my parents, especially my mom, so it definitely took me a while to adjust to not seeing them on a daily basis. It was hard at the time, but I realized that this was just a stage of life and ultimately my experience made me more independent, self aware, and grounded.
Most surprising thing about living on your own?
Food doesn’t magically appear in front of you at meal times, you have to prepare it!
Did you have a roommate? Was s/he Muslim? If not, did any issues arise from having different beliefs?
My roommate during my freshman year in the dorms was an international student from China. She was not Muslim, and if I remember correctly did not practice any faith. We never encountered any issues because we had different beliefs. She would sometimes ask me questions when she saw me praying. She didn’t know much about Islam and had never actually met a Muslim so initially I explained that I would be praying at various times throughout the day and told her about other religious obligations. After a few months she was accustomed to me praying, and would turn her music off if she saw me getting out my prayer rug etc.
What was your major? What was your favorite class/professor and why?
I was a Public Health major and Public Policy minor
My favorite class was Muslims in America, which was taught by Professor Hatem Bazian. Prior to taking this course, I read books about the history of Muslims in America, but had never studied the subject in a formal academic setting. Going through the Public School System in Oklahoma, the history of Muslims in America was not a topic that was discussed at all. Learning from one of the most distinguished professors in the world on this subject was an experience I’ll never forget. Professor Bazian’s unique sense of humor and choice of course literature on the topic made it an unforgettable class.
Did you encounter any difficulties at school due to the fact that you’re Muslim?
I never encountered difficulties because I’m Muslim, thank God. Berkeley is one of–if not the most– liberal universities in the world, so I always felt empowered being surrounded by like-minded, intelligent activists on campus.
What was the Muslim population like at your university?
Berkeley has a pretty large and active Muslim community. We regularly had about 100 students attend Jummah (Friday) prayer, and many more students who attended prayer at the Berkeley mosque, which is just one mile from campus. The Berkeley MSA consists of about 300 students. Most of the Muslim students are very active in their local communities and members of many service organizations. Every other Friday after Jummah (Friday) prayer, the MSA participates in Project Downtown, where we distribute sandwiches to the homeless in Downtown Berkeley.
“There’s not a day that goes by that I don’t think of how lucky I was to have grown up here and had the opportunities that I did…”
What do you like to do in your free time?
I really enjoy being outside so bike riding, running, and hiking are my favorite pastimes.
How does your faith affect your approach to education and your future goals?
My faith has always empowered me to pursue my education at the highest level. The Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, said that one should continue to seek knowledge from the cradle to the grave. I grew up in a Muslim household in which my family always encouraged me to obtain the highest quality education, even if that meant moving to a different part of the country. I was blessed to study at one of the most prestigious Universities in the world, and quickly realized that the more knowledge one obtains, the more one realizes how much one doesn’t know. I’ve found that traveling and studying in different parts of the country is humbling, and if done for God, brings one closer to Him.
What will you major in at Yale? What are your career goals?
I plan to pursue an MPH and MBA at Yale. After graduating from Yale I’d like to work in the private sector, but ultimately my long-term career goal is to become a National Healthcare Policy Advisor under a Democratic Administration.
How do you feel when people suggest you or other Muslims don’t belong here?
Following the train of thought of anyone that suggests so would mean none of us belong here except the Native Americans–millions of whom were murdered– that were here before all of us. This is a country that consists largely of immigrants- most of the people in this country have a familial history that can be traced back to a different country. Thus, to suggest that anyone– regardless of their faith– should not be here is ruthless and unwarranted. I find things of this nature especially hurtful because I’m an immigrant– I was born in Kashmir and came to America when I was just a couple months old. It took me 18 years to become a U.S. Citizen and I absolutely love this country. There’s not a day that goes by that I don’t think of how lucky I was to have grown up here and had the opportunities that I did, because much of my family is still in Kashmir. We all have a unique journey… I wasn’t born here but that doesn’t make me less American than someone that was.
What are you most excited about right now?
I am definitely most excited about starting Graduate School at Yale. Connecticut is a beautiful state so I’m looking forward to hikes and traveling in the tri-state area.