February 26, 2019

AHMAD | To All the Mentors I’ve Had Before

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If I’m being completely honest, I hated Cornell when I first started attending. It was nothing personal, it was mainly just a combination of homesickness, intimidation and the infamous adjustment period. Unfortunately, my so-called adjustment period felt more like a chronic state and lasted much, much longer than I anticipated. When I look back at my time here — something that I tend to do a lot these days as it’s my last semester — I realize that the primary reason I got through it, and eventually began to love Cornell, was because of the mentors I’ve had along the way.

In my freshman year, against this background of inner turmoil and a sense of not fitting in, I was simultaneously trying to orient myself onto the pre-med track. I remember making an appointment with a career counselor, hoping to get at least one domain of my college career sorted out. I told the counselor that I wanted to go to medical school, and I asked her how I should get involved with shadowing physicians and volunteering at hospitals. When I finished my rambling barrage of questions, she took a deep breath and said, “I’m not sure if a medical career is the best option for you.” I was taken aback. I hadn’t even finished my first semester yet, so it couldn’t possibly be because of my grades. I was taking the necessary pre-med prerequisites, and while I didn’t have any clinical experience yet, it was only my first semester. Confused, I asked her why she thought I shouldn’t pursue a career in health care. After a long pause, she responded, “I just don’t know if patients would be comfortable with you treating them.” Gesturing to my headscarf, she said, “It’s very unfortunate, but it’s the time we’re living in.”

In that moment, I felt a surge of emotions: disbelief, anger, but most notably, fear. I was shocked by her words, and upset that she had said them so matter-of-factly. But more than anything, I was terrified there was a chance she could be right. Could it really be possible that all the plans I had for my future could come crashing down within merely one semester of attending college? I didn’t have the answers, but after leaving the counselor’s office, those questions swirled around in my mind endlessly.

Then, in my sophomore year I took an English course titled “Body as Text,” in which we regularly discussed the representation of bodies and identities. I started going to office hours to talk more with my professor about some of the topics we discussed. During one of these talks, I recounted how my own experience and perception of my identity made me apprehensive about medical school and unenthusiastic about taking any initiative. She listened sincerely, and reassured me that as a queer, Jewish woman herself, she could relate to my position. She then told me something that I have carried with me ever since. She told me that I lived on an intersection of identities: I was a woman of color, a hijab-wearing Muslim and a college student who wanted a career in health care. “You will always have to bear the load of those identities, no matter what you do,” she said. “You exist at the meeting point of those identities. You have to learn to use them to your advantage. Use them to propel you.”

Her words gave me an immense amount of clarity. My identity was not something I could erase, regardless of where I went to school or what career path I chose. Rather, it was something I had to learn to embrace and incorporate into my goals. Any negativity or pushback that I received was just something I would have to overcome. And I could overcome it.

From that point onwards, I had many mentors like that English professor who helped break down the walls of insecurity with which I had surrounded myself and reminded me that my experiences are what I make of them. I began to seek out opportunities where my perspective would be valued and gradually became comfortable living outside my comfort zone. I volunteered at Cayuga Medical Center, where my coordinator taught me how to enter and leave a patient’s room with confidence, even when I was mortified of judgment. I trained to become a rape crisis line counselor, where the training leader encouraged me to lead discussions about intersectionality and cultural differences.

Now, as a senior, I spend a lot of time walking through campus gazing off into the distance with an air of melancholy and reflecting on my bittersweet years at Cornell (not really, but that’s how it plays out in my mind). I owe so much to the lecture halls that have known my stresses, the libraries that have known my ambitions and the bathrooms that have known my tears. However, I owe the very most to the mentors who have coached me through all of those things, and have gotten me here today. To them, I say thank you.

Faiza Ahmad is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at fahmad@cornellsun.com. The Fifth Column runs every other Wednesday this semester.