The paradox of belonging

At Commencement in 2016, Areeba Kamal talked about Mount Holyoke College’s diversity and what she called the “paradox of belonging.”

By Sonia Paul

Her life reads like a fairy tale of a woman beating the odds to obtain an education. 

But Karachi-born and raised Areeba Kamal ’16, now earning a master’s degree in business at Stanford University, is no-nonsense about the hurdles of being an international student.

“One has to do with visas,” she said. “Second has to do with money. Third is around diversity and inclusion.”

Money was the biggest external hurdle Kamal faced growing up in Karachi, but she is also honest about the internal struggles that amplified the financial ones.

“I grew up in an orthodox society where women are often expected to get married early and de-prioritize their own ambitions so they can serve their husband’s needs,” she said. “But my mom, with her bold, successful career as a creative writer, told my sister and I we could be whoever we wanted, and poured all her earnings into our education.”

Kamal's mom's health deteriorated while she and her younger sister were growing up. By the time Kamal was in high school, she realized her mother could not afford to send her to college. Kamal graduated high school as valedictorian, and started working different vocational jobs in Karachi. 

“Whatever I got paid, I saved for college application fees,” she said. “I was eager to get an education and have agency. All of those choices that were not mine, I wanted them to be mine.”

Kamal applied to thirty-five colleges around the world, hoping one of them would give her enough financial aid. When Mount Holyoke College came through for her and offered her a scholarship, Kamal left Pakistan for the first time to get her college degree. While she faced “crippling homesickness,” she said, being at college was mostly euphoric.

“I was happy and I learned a lot,” she said, emphasizing that being an international student was a part of that happiness. “I think that Mount Holyoke was special in that it was able to house all of us [international students] and our needs.”

Kamal has especially fond memories of Eliot House, Mount Holyoke’s religious and spiritual center that serves as a hangout spot for international students. It was “the most magical place” in Kamal’s mind, as she transitioned from being a scared first-year student to learning the ropes of how to exist in a new environment. 

“I remember making chai for 40 people every Friday,” she said. “On Wednesdays, you had Interfaith Lunch.”

“I felt all my identities were awake at the same time,” she added.

At Mount Holyoke, Kamal, figuring that what she studied might influence her ability to secure a work visa upon graduation, picked a “pragmatic major” and a “fun major” — computer science and international relations, respectively. She’s open about how her family upbringing motivated this decision, and that she was likely carrying more weight than most people realized.

"I was raised in a society where scores of women face violence and disenfranchisement every single day," she said. "For me, to move across the world to a campus full of powerful women, where I could decide how to live, what to wear, who to be..." Her voice trailed off as she found the words. "It took me some time to stand on my own two feet, but I was able to make choices around how I wanted to live my life." 

She felt a strong sense of what she calls “psychological safety” and carefreeness studying with all women, she said. Being at a women’s college also reminded her the significance of female friendships, and of two key mindsets carrying her forward now: “the importance of gender as a lens to view the world,” and “the importance of supporting and empathizing with other women.”

As the student speaker at her Commencement, Kamal spoke about Mount Holyoke’s diversity and the “paradox of belonging” in a global world — an aspect of the school she says she appreciates even more as a student at Stanford’s Graduate School of Business. 

The Stanford student population is not as diverse, she said. But graduate education is helping her to pave the way for her future. Last summer, she worked at Apple as a product manager, and after she earns her MBA she plans to return to the company to work as a product manager, designing features for technology users with special needs. It's a career track that is personally rewarding for Kamal, as her mother was disabled during the last years of her life.

Kamal’s advice to international students now is more reassurance: “Any choices that you’re making for pragmatic reasons, like money or work authorizations or visas, those choices do not define you,” she said. “You can still have a fulfilling career.”

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