My name is George Iskander. I’m a PhD Candidate in physics at UChicago. I’m active on Twitter (for better or for worse). I talk about being Egyptian and Coptic a lot. I’m pretty visible, from how I look to what I say. I’m not afraid to talk about my experiences being a low-income and first-generation student in a field that’s predominantly none of that. So, I get PMs from folks from all levels: high schoolers, undergraduates, even graduate students, asking for advice or saying words of appreciation. Here’s a little reflection on those lovely conversations.
Every so often, I see a little blue icon in my Twitter DMs: a message request. It’s different every time. An Egyptian undergraduate who’s got doubts about herself, an Iraqi dude from abroad who wants to know how I got to where I am.
Hey George!! I’m another Arab in STEM and I wanted some advice about…
As I read the message preview, I think:
What should I say? What can I say? I doubt myself a lot, and as honest as I am about life, I don’t even talk about all those doubts. What wisdom can I offer?
All I’ve known my entire life is school. I used to think I knew a lot, but being still freshly minted out of college, I’m still figuring a lot of things out. No false modesty, but I’m humbled that people read what I say and think it’s valuable, that maybe I can offer some wisdom or insight.
I open the message request to read it in full. I’m always struck by how people can be so honest with, frankly, a stranger. It’s not easy to let your hair down, so to speak, even with friends. But I think that’s what draws us as Arabs together. Even if you’re Muslim and I’m Christian, you’re Lebanese and I’m Egyptian, you’re from Lebanon and I’m a diaspora kid who’s only known America — there’s something deep and shared between us. It’s ineffable, but there’s some understanding that breaks down barriers. So you bearing your heart in some Twitter request-message-in-a-bottle isn’t strange to me, I’ve done the same.
The message goes:
…I want to go to grad school, but I have doubts about myself, I’m not smart like my classmates, I’m not as accomplished, I don’t know if I can make it. Should I stick with it? How do I even tell my parents I want to be a scientist? I don’t know ugh.
What a message. I appreciate when people ask me for advice, because it gives me a chance to think about my life and turn it over in my head. There’s usually some new insight when I think back on things. So, in some way, I feel like when people ask me questions, it helps me just as it helps them.
I start typing:
Habibi! Wallahi tysm for this message, it really made my day. I totally understand what you mean, I had the same doubts myself…
I find that I have a hard time convincing people they had a harder-than-usual time compared to others. But, the majority of us Arabs are first-generation. A lot of us are low-income. We’re the only Brown or Arab faces in our classes sometimes. A lot of this gets obscured in the Arab conception of the American Dream.
It’s not a monolithic idea. We all come to know the American Dream through others. For me, it was through my parents. How they saw it ultimately shaped my ideas about my own identity and my own purpose. My experience isn’t universal, but I’m sure shades of what I’m going to say resonate with others’ experiences. In short, the Arab experience in America has normalized adversity. My parents instilled in me that life is short and rocky, that we’re all condemned to a life of work and suffering, that humility is the greatest virtue. Their experiences in Egypt informed this idea and these beliefs are also prevalent in Christianity. Even as early as kindergarten, this was something my parents talked to me about. I remember sitting in the car with my dad hurtling down the highway at night. As I stared at the night sky, he rattled off his dreams for me: college, the post-college career, family, a stable existence for once — things I could only attain if I worked as hard as I could for the next few decades, accepting that a harvest could only come after rain.
These attitudes and virtues were particularly dear to my parents who integrated in the ‘90s as xenophobic attitudes towards Middle Eastern folks grew. And for their kid, me, who grew up in post-9/11 America, instilling that attitude became paramount. Life is gonna suck sometimes, and people won’t like you.
…You mention all these difficulties you face, but you never call them that…
When you believe things the way I did, it’s pretty easy to keep your head down when things don’t go your way. And that’s how I approached a lot of things in life. The attitude is a pair of blinders, you don’t realize you’re being kept down by others, by life. Or even if you do realize, you rationalize that this is the way life is, things go on. You’re hesitant to label your experiences. There’s a power in recognizing things are harder for you, that you made it in spite of the roadblocks that were in front of you.
…Recognize them for what they were and what they say about you, about your strength and perseverance. Be kind to yourself…
We’re all going to face challenges. But you got to extend yourself grace. Kindness towards the self is how we learn to believe in ourselves and push ourselves in a way that’s sustainable. It’s what gives us strength to keep on in spite of the stuff that bears down on us. It’s this kindness that cures imposter syndrome. That’s something I’m still learning.
What my parents drilled in me made an indelible impact on me. If I wanted what I dreamed of, I had to be the best or else — there was no compromise. In the absence of kindness, my drive and ambition took root, but there was no self-regard to undergird my actions. If I fell short, I relentlessly berated myself. Therein lay a lot of my insecurities about myself and my path. When you push yourself without regard, when you endlessly compare yourself to others, you punish yourself.
How could I be anything but discontent with myself? I did this to myself all through college. So on top of the extrinsic challenges, like lack of POC and Arabs in my field, elitist and discriminatory attitudes, I had to contend with battling myself. Dealing with both was tough. But the realization to be kind came late; only after I graduated from college. In that summer between college and grad school, I looked back on my journey as the next chapter of my life lay just ahead. I realized that I hadn’t had it as easy as everyone else, but here I was, studying the field I loved. When I look at what I know now about physics versus what I knew as a bright-eyed and naive college freshman, I can’t help but marvel at my own dedication and progress. I can do things in my sleep now that I couldn’t dream of doing as a freshman. And in spite of everything! How could I not then be proud of myself?
Everyone will want to measure you by their standards: your peers, your competitors, your professors…but we’ll only ever be happy when we measure ourselves by our own yardstick.
…Re: your parents. I get you. I had a tough time convincing them physics is what I wanted to do…
There’s always the “parents” questions. How can we convince them to believe in us when we want to take the path less traveled? How do we let go of what they expect for us? Look, the discourse about immigrant parents and their desires for their children has been beaten to death. Irrespective of nationality or creed, parents invariably push their kids towards medicine, engineering, or the law. Lucrative careers. There’s friction when we want to deviate from the ideal.
It’s kind of bizarre to me, because science is well-respected (among Arabs and non-Arabs alike), but you’ll still get a lot of questions about it from others. All throughout college, my parents asked me if I was sure I wanted to study physics. “It’s not too late to switch to engineering, right?” I definitely lost count of how many people at my church asked me, “What are you going to do with that?” It’s a little disheartening for sure. When the field is as hard as it is, you want to hear your people cheer you on, not question your decisions.
At some point, I learned to make peace with it. As long as I could be happy and kind to myself, others could hear it in my voice and see it in the ways my eyes glint when I talk about doing what I love. I’ve seen attitudes shift as I’ve stayed in the field and made it clear that I’m here to stay. The aunts and uncles at church who used to look at me quizzically call on God’s blessing when I tell them my plans for the future. When I’m home on breaks, I hear my parents on the phone talking excitedly about what I’m doing.
…I remember hearing them talk about the pride of our country, Ahmed Zewail, growing up. But he wasn’t an engineer. I heard them go off about Naguib Mahfouz time and time again. He wasn’t a doctor or engineer either. We can tread our own paths and find success there….
Maybe I’m talking to myself by talking to others. Maybe the more I put myself out there, the more I help you, the more I feel I am worthy of being the role model that other people see me as. So just like you poured your heart out to me, I return the same.
Always here for you, habibi. Anything you need, don’t hesitate to let me know, OK? 🙂
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George Iskander is a PhD candidate in physics at the University of Chicago and a proud Egyptian-American. He studies dark matter using precision physics and can be found at www.iskander.me or @jerseyphysicist.