During her senior year at Millsaps, Resham Rahat received the Frank and Rachel Anne Laney Award for an essay she wrote as a class assignment. The award recognizes the graduating senior who best expresses the value of a Millsaps liberal arts education, and the winning paper is required reading for all incoming freshmen. You can read Resham’s award-winning essay below and read more about the influence Tri Delta has had on her life in the fall issue of The Trident.
By Resham Rahat, Millsaps
I was born with a love of numbers, of raw empirical data that is constant and irrefutable. I even disliked randomness in meandering figures after a decimal point. I like my numbers whole and solid. A statistic, like 2+2=4, cannot be argued once substantiated. I clung to this fact throughout my childhood in Meridian, Mississippi, the lone non-Caucasian, non-Christian for the majority of thirteen years—kindergarten through twelfth grade. A Pakistani-American, Muslim girl in a private, Christian school in Meridian, Mississippi, in a graduating class of thirty-three. This simple fact may suggest a chronicle of prejudice and bigotry, but that’s far from reality. The school fosters an inclusive environment, but inclusivity remains a challenge among individuals whose family dynamics, religious and political backgrounds, and social history are universal constants. My identity–my very existence in this sea of conformity-was an anomaly, never ridiculed, yet never understood either.
My peers are not to blame for their lack of understanding. Rather, I never understood my own identity because I straddled two worlds. The first world consisted of my high school, where I altered my strange twang of an Urdu/Mississippi flavored voice to match the southern dialect of my classmates and teachers, where I discussed the latest developments of last night’s episode on MTV or ABC Family, and where I joined my classmates in condemning (but secretly loved) the latest essay assignment in our designated novel or the number of calculus problems to derive. I adhered to this unspoken code of orthodoxy to avoid any of that “God-forbidden” awkwardness that accompanies conflict with the accepted norm. The side-effect of this evasion was a hollow sense of infidelity. In order to compensate, I relied on my aforementioned love of numbers and used my grades as a measure of success. I pursued that elusive 100 in every class with fiery zeal to prove my worthiness because even if I could not voice what I wanted, at least others knew that I did possess thoughts that merited listening.
These metrics bore equal weight in my second world in Lahore, Pakistan. Dadaji and Papaji, my paternal and maternal grandfathers, respectively, rooted a passion for education within me. Dadaji, Rahat Elahi Sheikh, worked as a government bureaucrat in Pakistan in the Ministry of Commerce. I remember his image vaguely—he passed away nearly ten years ago—but I clearly remember his voice because of our regular nighttime talks as I prepared for bed. He affectionately called me his “tiger”, his sher in Pakistani’s Urdu, and asked me to roar for him. I used to roar into the phone and he would laugh every time, sometimes his laugh into a sputtering, choking cough from decades of smoking. During the phone call, he asked me about my grades and what books I recently read. He stressed the importance of education, especially as me being a girl, and told me how crucial it was for me and my younger siblings to study and to work hard. Dad later told me how Dadaji supported him—financially and emotionally—throughout his medical school education, insisting on a better future for him and his future family. I still remember that towards the end of Dadaji’s life when his dementia rendered his conversations often incoherent, he never forgot to mention education and how much he loved me.
Papaji, Sheikh Abdul Sami, mirrored a similar pattern of stressing education and work ethic through his life decisions and conversations with me. He determinedly worked through a physical handicap to become a general surgeon and practiced in both Libya and England with the rest of his family, including my mother. Throughout overseas, his number one priority was the education of my mother and her brothers. Mom told me that toys and food was often rationed under Qaddafi’s reign in Libya, but Papaji always managed to procure books for them. Upon returning to Pakistan, Papaji encouraged Mom’s wishes to pursue higher education to apply and become ultimately accepted in the prestigious LUMS MBA Program. In our conversations, not as regular as mine with Dadaji, he asks me about classes and the next major hurdle – a test, a paper, a project, anything. He reminds me, again, to study hard and that he loves me.
This second world instructed me to regard education as a gift to be treasured and to work towards excellence as an unspoken responsibility to the sacrifices of Dadaji, Papaji, grandmothers, and my parents. I did not regard it as a burden or overwhelming pressure; it simply seemed a natural continuation of a narrative of which I was both an automatic and willing participant. My conversations with my family in Pakistan reinforced this concept as well as the notion of a test-score (a number) as a benchmark for success. Hence my identity was dually invested in the value of a number – first in my validation as a “person” in my high school sphere and secondly, as a means of pride for my family in Pakistan.
So, I am a fraction rooted in Lahore, Pakistan, and I am a fraction rooted in Meridian, Mississippi. Both worlds are sheltered, small and limited in scope, and yet I struggled in the harmonious co-existence of these multiple identities inside one being. As a big proponent of transparency, I grew tired of donning my Prufrockian mask as I interlaced between the expectations of these white and brown worlds, never feeling comfortable as myself in either. I remember reading Walt Whitman’s Song of Myself in eleventh grade English and being confused at the words “Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself, I am large, I contain multitudes.” I longed for the confidence and the freedom to say those words about myself and for someone to listen to those words.
As a disclaimer, I recognize that it is tempting to romanticize a posteriori and suggest that I was a victim of circumstance. This is not true; my insecurities did not stem from being a Pakistani-American Muslim nor did I face any genuine hardships. Instead, I was disconcerted at the truth that my closest friends did not know me, that I did not know them, or more importantly, not knowing who I was myself or how to be myself. These thoughts influenced my search for an undergraduate institution as I perused through statistics of average MCAT scores and medical school matriculation rates because, as everyone knows, numbers matter. Somehow, the hyped “growth” and “development” that accompanied a liberal arts education trumped my fixation on metrics and lured me to Jackson, Mississippi.
After Fourth Night, when I stood by John Wesley moments before seeing Gandhi when walking over the seal towards the assembled chairs in the Bowl, I learned that time at Millsaps does not flow. It’s viscous, occurring in bursts of experience after experience after experience separated with brief recesses to catch your breath. One moment you catch yourself in a heated argument about the validity of creation stories (did Genesis copy that much from Enûma Eliš?) in a classroom to discussing the same subject hours later while sitting on a flannel couch underneath dizzying rave lights at a fraternity house. It’s hard to capture that feeling in words, the feeling that the boxes and labels and colors and religions and backgrounds shouldn’t be mixing as well as they are, and yet they are.
The initial months of freshman year persisted as a series of paradigm shifts threatening me every day with how little I knew about the world, and I marveled in it. One Heritage lecture we read about Ghalib, a poet from the Mughal era famous for his ghazal poetry. I read some of his poems along with other Sufi poems for a Heritage assignment and looked up the words online to read them in Urdu. I sat in my room in Bacot, clutched at the words and cried. Within the phrases were lines reminiscent of my favorite Bollywood songs, the ones that I had danced to at home or hummed with my parents on our trans-America car trips. Within Ghalib’s ghazal poetry, which he wrote in the advent of the British Empire in India whose violent fall propelled my Dadaji and Papaji to move to Lahore, Pakistan, were fragments of my childhood. It hit me hard.
It’s kind of surreal to discover a part of oneself in an obscure book of nineteenth-century Mughal era poetry. Thus, I felt salient. My Prufrockian mask was finally leaving, and I didn’t feel the need to change my voice when I spoke. There was no separation of worlds between the dorm and the class and the caf and the HAC. I was free and liberated to be me the entire time, to act on impulses and passion just because I could and why not? #college
I was also #blessed with the fortunate circumstances at home that emboldened this freedom—not from practical constraints but the constraints that accompany being a daughter of Pakistani-American, Muslim parents. This typically would suggest adherence to a set of expectations: ostensible religiosity, obedience, and academic excellence, but I was free from this responsibility. Instead, my parents had different demands: good character, hard work with pure intentions, and being happy.
This philosophy combined with the atmosphere of Mother Millsaps drove me to “become involved” without inhibition. Greek life, Diwali, Foundations, with a somewhat naïve zeal fueled by the mission of the organization: Greek life, for pushing the individual to become an academically and philanthropically-improved version in a values-based structure; Diwali, to celebrate life in a series of choreographed Bollywood randomness; and Foundations, to instill a love for Millsaps in the next generation of students.
During the process of these events in three and a half years, you realize that learning at Millsaps is so rich. From reciting Greek ritual in a chapter room of sixty girls to dancing to the thundering bass of bhangra in the HAC Aerobics room for hours upon days upon weeks to understanding hydrophobic interactions dictating the conformation of the phospholipid bilayer of nearly every cell in our body, you begin to shudder under all that you are experiencing. It’s almost an overstimulation of stimuli, and it flows in a Heraclitian flux from day one. The richness does not come from the material that you are studying or the music that you are immersed in; it’s from the richness of the people that you share this experience with and you learn the definition of the word “diversity.” You understand that the richness of your skin tone or the richness of your pockets was no indication of the richness (or lack thereof) of your experiences and the richness of you, the person beside you, the person, the salient individual.
The richness is further compounded by the Heraclitian flux that we are all swimming in and etches the subtle changes in our identity, which forces us to constantly reexamine what we think and why we think it. The person that Millsaps fashions us into – as variable as we are – is as different as we are from day one as the lack of resemblance between senior year and the face staring back at us in our freshman ID.
This change was hard for me to swallow. I was born with a love of numbers, remember? Even though the prospect of a new semester was enticing, the change that accompanied it was not. New surroundings, new schedules, new people. Friends from freshman year became strangers and other strangers who you had categorized into the “other” box, separate from you, became friends, and there were no clear demarcations. As we collectively shed our Prufrockian mask and experience this salient reawakening to become attune to our true selves, we grow vulnerable. You talk to someone without your mask, with complete sincerity, and listen to someone’s words, thinking he or she is also speaking with complete sincerity, and then time continues in its punctuated equilibrium and we continue in our Heraclitian flux, and you realize later that the conversation no longer belongs in the category of complete sincerity. You know that the initial moment was true and the second moment no longer rings true (or vice versa) and the transformation from truth to non-truth (or vice versa) is expedited at Mother Millsaps.
That’s why I sought refuge in a biochemistry major for when the sparks of insight teetered on the edge of being a little too overwhelming. Gen chem and organic initially replaced question marks with black and white figures, and stoichiometry and rate laws provided a tangible clarity with balance in concentration and charge against a background of ambiguity. I soon began a project under Dr. Kramer’s research lab to study the photochemistry of nitrogen onium salts. In English, my participation translates to preparing different solutions and analyzing the chemical composition of the solution using a GC/MS machine. Rarely (if ever) did the experimental results correspond to the theoretical hypothesis. I would clean the glassware meticulously, pour over my calculations and make minute adjustments, and then repeat, repeat, repeat to no avail.
The same thing occurred in the upper level sciences – organic, physical chemistry, and biochemistry. Every reaction had multiple side reactions. Every molecule behaved differently in different conditions – temperature, pH, concentrations, receptors, locations. Even in my math minor! The higher I ventured – with biochemistry and calculus III and so forth – the more I confronted complexity, ambiguity, and questions. I wanted to compartmentalize the numbers and terminology so badly—I wanted a definitive answer to every “why” but I was failed like I failed to discern why someone could be my best friend for a year and an utter enigma the next.
One “answer” (or nonanswer) that I stumbled across in chemistry was the second law of thermodynamics: that the entropy of an isolated system increases in a spontaneous reaction. Entropy is a beautiful, almost poetic concept, really – an entity’s natural tendency to assume the position of greatest disorder. No matter how much you want to fit a molecule into a fixed crystal lattice structure, it will counter-react towards the direction of lowest energy – randomness.
I think the entropic search for authenticity and truth propels the Major through Millsaps. We keep looking for constants and numbers and certainties for the foundation of our framework, holding it dear when it has “ubiquitous” sounding ring to it. When the constant is revealed to carry a flaw, it can be unsettling but we eventually grow to embrace the flaw and keep on searching. We, the Millsaps student body, collectively share this growth to discover how much of our history – all of the changes that we have already undergone –dictates our perception of the current reality that we experience. I heard these words early on in my freshman year in a Heritage lecture about Kant’s epistemological theory on how the mind behaved as an active participant in our creation of knowledge and reality but the implication didn’t quite strike me until a few weeks ago in a Neuroanatomy and Neurophysiology class. We were studying the brain’s processing of visual information from sensation to actual perception. The simplistic relay is retina to ganglion neurons to the lateral geniculate nucleus in the thalamus to the primary visual cortex in the cerebral hemisphere. That’s the flow of sensation to perception and guess freaking what? Eighty percent of excitatory synapses in the thalamus arise from the visual cortex, not the retina, with the significance that eighty percent of what we “see” is directly influenced by what we have already “seen.”
Isn’t that amazing? This pattern of efferent control imitates itself throughout the human body – from what we taste and hear and smell and feel—pain and pressure and temperature included. Kant was right in the most literal sense; the brain has awesome power over what we perceive, and we dictate what past experiences that the brain uses as a baseline. The value of the Millsaps liberal arts education is to render us cognizant of that fact. It makes us into beings with thoughts, feelings, emotions, sensations to which we become salient.
So, where does that leave me? I stand (actually sit) at the close of my penultimate semester at Millsaps and I look back. I am still a Muslim and was the two-time President of Millsaps Masala, an organization celebrating a Hindu festival. I am a biochemistry major and mathematics minor who served as the president of a sorority. I am an introvert who has never touched alcohol, who idolizes the rapper Drake, who is weirdly obsessed with both the concept of entropy and McDonalds’ Oreo McFlurries, and I was Homecoming Queen. I am a paradox. I am a contradiction. I finally get you, Walt Whitman. I still don’t know exactly who I am, really, but that’s okay. I am a Millsaps student.