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Daring greatly amidst the goliaths

Un-belonging taught me to have the courage to be seen.

I believe in the power of storytelling and narrative humility as vehicles to drive connection and bridge differences to resolve global problems. During my post-grad at Columbia, I shared my story of daring greatly as an underdog David among the Goliaths in spaces of un-belonging in technology and higher education.

My story was part of an event that was sponsored by the Office of University Life at Columbia University’s StorySpace. It is an initiative that provides an intimate space similar to public radio/WNYC’s The Moth, where Columbia students tell a five-minute personal story at an emceed evening reading. Watch the video below or read the story transcript.

TL;DR: Video Stories

Story Transcript

Good evening everybody. My name is Elham, which means inspiration in Arabic. My name inscribes a continuous reminder of my destiny as its bearer. It also brings a rich history of immigration, cultural defeats and personal triumphs from my ancestors. But most importantly, it tells a narrative of being an underdog, a David, in a world of Goliaths.

When I was 15 years old, I left home. I left my family to pursue a full-ride scholarship as an exchange student in Wisconsin. I lived in the middle of corn fields on a hill in Menomonie, in a beautiful home. My room was in the basement with access to the woods, reminiscent of the horror movie Children of the Corn. Mind you, I come from both Bahrain, a tiny country near Saudi Arabia, once known as the Las Vegas of the Middle East, and from the Philippines, known for its hospitality and its once record title as one of the happiest nations on earth. I took one big grey suitcase, packed with my clothes, toiletries, and some books. I wore jeans and a red shirt that said: “believe in yourself”. Little did I know that this exact same quote was what I needed to hear for the upcoming years for moving to three different high schools. Wisconsin was my second high school.

Amidst feelings of unbelonging, as the author of your own story, you are exactly where you belong. And I am exactly where I belong.

My scholarship was from the Kennedy-Lugar Youth Exchange and Study (YES) program, funded by the U.S. Department of State. It provides scholarships for high school students from countries with significant Muslim populations to spend one academic year in the United States. I left home because this was my shot to learn and grow in a culture that I once idolized and learned English from watching popular TV shows like Sabrina the Teenage Witch and Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. I was happy, excited and nervous for a journey. I jumped into a plan and to a world that was so foreign to me. I played ice-hockey, performed in the school orchestra and the regional symphony, and participated in Future Business Leaders of America club. But, my deepest passion was working my way through STEM; I wanted to be an engineer and go to MIT. So what did I do? I signed up for an engineering class. I was one of two girls, the only women of color, in a dominated class of 15 boys in my engineering class in Wisconsin. My first engineering project was designing a moving miniature car with a built-in catapult, using fischertechnik and AutoCAD.

Despite my determination to prove to certain classmates that I did belong in this class, hard work and perseverance, I failed my first engineering project. My prototype failed to work during the demonstration day. And for the first time, I felt exposed and vulnerable. In a world that preferred a superhero, I felt like a loser. So what did I do? I made my own capes and tied them tight around I allowed the inner critics and the outer ones to take over.

So, here I was.

Too foreign for home, rejected by some peers for coming from a multiracial and multicultural family, labeled as Other for speaking English better than my mother language Arabic, and being pushed away as “a disbeliever” for questioning Islam and accepting certain principals of Catholicism, one of the greatest religions I grew up under in my household.

Then, here I was.

Too foreign for here, told by my project partner to let him do all the “hard work” and for me to do the easy tasks “to put the construction blocks together like legos”, told by another classmate that maybe I was suited for a different field, one that I could handle. Maybe he meant art or literature, you know the girly fields he said. Locker ripped apart that had a small poster labeled Bahrain with a heart around it and the words Arabian Diaspora, isolated from my own hockey team, and felt like an outsider with my introverted self among my gregarious, outspoken host family.

I was never enough for both.

I left one home to be rejected by another. I was a David in two worlds of Goliaths. So I made a decision. I quit pursuing engineering at 16. But, rest assured, quitting at that specific moment taught me to do something much greater. I learned to dare greatly.

Over the next 9 years, I worked my way back into engineering, in the form of entering biomedical informatics, human-centered design to develop technologies that drive better health outcomes for the vulnerable, the voiceless and the marginalized. Nine years taught me that belonging is a campaign. It’s a daily, monthly, yearly campaign. It’s an incessant fight to prove to the Goliaths that I do belong in the public health, tech, and informatics worlds. It’s a campaign of hard work, discipline, and dedication. Belonging is not a quick path and there are no short cuts. Fitting in has required me to continuously build trust, credibility, and respect among my peers, mentors, and colleagues with my work and character in my fields.

Un-belonging taught me to have the courage to be seen including in my work as a project manager in international trade working with high-level diplomats and international teams. In times of uncertainty, I leaped afraid and dived into courage. This is never more so true when I decided to enter the tech world, teach myself coding and build my own website. Un-belonging also taught me to take calculated risks, by working in global health projects in various developing countries like Kenya, Uganda, and India. Un-belonging taught me to lead valiantly as a past EMT and as a current product manager, which has resulted in me assisting in the launch of four products in business development and public health.

Most importantly, un-belonging and quitting at that moment at 15 taught me that it is not the critic who counts, to discern between the internal and external critics. This requires a humble welcoming to constructive feedback because when we stop listening to what people have to say, we lose our capacity for connection. However, when we become defined by what people have to say, we lose our willingness to be vulnerable.

Amidst feelings of unbelonging, as the author of your own story, you are exactly where you belong. And I am exactly where I belong.

Today at Columbia, I am home.

Thank you.

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