Following our podcast this month on Somali experiences in higher education, we decided to ask some of our contributors a question that figured prominently in the discussion: What do you wish you knew in university? Here are some of the responses.
My advice to young Somalis is: be yourself. There’s an assumption that you have to be polished and refined when you enter college/uni. It’s true that educational environments are exclusionary to black folk. But that doesn’t mean you have to be someone else. You’ll just come across as disingenuous. When I entered university, I thought I had to hide my love of grime and hip hop because I was in a white environment. I didn’t want to be perceived as “ghetto”. It felt unnatural to behave differently just because I was afraid of what other people thought. Now, black music seems to be the new “sexy” among folk. You have Jimmys, Beckys and Charlottes skanking along to Stormzy and Skepta! Similarly when it came to my “Somaliness”, university gave me the self-confidence in my identity. That being said, it did take a lot of soul-searching and reading to appreciate a culture that I was disconnected from. Now, I delight in telling people that I am a grandson of a nomadic camel-herder and the son of a welder. Do I care what other people think? Nope. But I can guarantee you it does make me unconventional! Be true to yourself and be confident in who you are and where you come from. Obviously, there needs to be a level of professionalism and maturity in your approach to university life. And there are times when you have to be emotionally and socially intelligent when you’re with different audiences. But, there’s nothing more important than being who you are. Don’t change yourself so you’re palatable to the “Other”. Be a non-conformist Abdullah Geelah
There are many things I wish I knew and had done as a young undergraduate student. First, I would strongly encourage learning a new (esp. commercially relevant) language – or try to perfect one you fairly know. I also wish I knew that good grades and a can-do attitude isn’t enough and that universities are not meritocracies. Also important are networks, connections, and building collegiate relationships. Moreover, as a person of colour, I knew I had to stand out and demonstrate, right off the bat, that school and grades matter to me – lest my professors or TAs assumed otherwise (and they may, at times, assume otherwise). Also, be aware that your professors are not infallible, beacons of knowledge– they have many biases, too. At times, I sought to detect these predispositions and strategically play to their leanings to better my grades. Now, I wish I had the courage to challenge some of my professors on their views. As for graduate school, I learned quickly that networks and collegiate relationships matter more than ever. I learned this early as a master’s student. For instance, I attended my first graduate seminar well-prepared, utilizing my undergraduate readings and research related to the course subject (it was my topic of expertise). Even a doctoral student pulled me aside to note my knowledge of the sub-discipline. I aimed to please the professor who, unfortunately, was unresponsive. I met with the professor after class to discuss my research paper. He abruptly interrupted me to tell me that he couldn’t support my PhD application to that school if that was my goal. Confused, I told him that I had no intention of applying that year, nor to that school, nor to work him. He assumed that my eagerness in class meant I wanted to curry favour come application season. His reasoning for dismissing me as his potential doctoral student? He promised he would work with a different girl in our seminar (who had no previous background knowledge in the sub-discipline) only because she in turn agreed to work in his regional area of expertise (he wanted to build a small research group at the university around his work). I was appalled by the blatant favouritism and disregard for student merit. It was interesting to realize the mitigated importance of ‘merit’ compared with the importance of networking. That said, the most important thing I learned was to never let set backs set you back. Deeqa Mohamed
Always have a plan for your educational and professional development. It’s not always easy to have a clear sense of direction at that time in your life, but it’s absolutely necessary for your success, so start setting goals and thinking about what’s next as soon as possible. If you intend to go to graduate school, it’s important to begin orienting yourself towards that and building a competitive applicant’s profile as early as your second year of university. The same goes for those interested in work and entering certain fields — career building begins in college. Build relationships with your professors and go to their office hours so they can get to know you individually. Don’t be afraid to ask for things you need, like letters of recommendation. Manage your time well and prioritize. Have confidence (even if you have to fake it sometimes) and always be proactive, it’s your life and your education. Safia Aidid
I treated my grades like currency. The better I did the more I had access to e.g. scholarships, grants, research opportunities, mentoring, etc. The real question is how to get better grades? Here I some helpful hints I received and learned along the way (these tips are mostly for the humanities and social sciences students): · Make your first draft a C paper. It takes the pressure off, especially if you get anxious about writing. You can always turn a ‘C’ paper into an ‘A’ paper. · Speak up! You’d be surprised how much of your grade is dependent on the instructor’s opinion of your skills based on classroom discussions. I once co-wrote a paper with a student who didn’t speak much in class. She got a C+ and I got an A, for the exact same paper. The Professor changed her grade once she told him we handed in the exact same paper. · Write an outline before you start a paper! This way, you will have some idea of what you want to argue and the evidence you’ll need. Outlines really help organize your work. · Figure out where you work best e.g. coffee shop, quite library or at the dining room table; and sit there and work. · Try not to cram. Over the course of my undergrad I’ve pulled many overnighters but in time I’ve learned that I produce my best work when I’m rested and alert. Try to do your work when you’re most efficient. · Grades are not everything! Take time to enjoy life and the many opportunities your school offers. And in the long run, you’ll do better as a student and as a person. Ahmed Ahmed
Sustain a large support network around you, as much as possible fill it with scholars, peers, family and friends. The academy can be lonely and you will need cheerleaders around you to remind you of a bigger life picture. Learn the rules first then break as many of them as you can. Understanding all the departmental deadlines makes it easier to request an extension from teachers. Don’t let anyone make decisions about your education for you! Build networks in the companies or institutions that you’d like to eventually work in, these are the people who could eventually hire you. And keep asking questions, those who will answer them for you will save you enormous stress and time. You are important, your work is important and the contributions you will make are important. Never forget it. Hawa Y. Mire
I have two pieces of advice, one pretty boring, and one a bit more interesting. The boring advice: pay attention to details. When the professor gives you a syllabus and course schedule, don’t just read it once. Look at it every day! My more interesting advice, which I wish I’d learned earlier, is to take advantage of the events that happen on campus. Go to lectures, movies, art exhibits, etc., even when they’re outside your field of study. These things enrich you, making you a better student and an accomplished, well-rounded person. Sofia Samatar
One thing I wish I knew in undergrad is that the habits you form during that time will be very difficult to break afterwards so try to develop good habits while you can. For example, I wish I had been more disciplined about doing my work in undergrad. You can get away with doing less work and fewer readings in your undergrad classes but this is definitely not a habit you want to carry with you. Also, just because something is not interesting to you doesn’t mean it is unworthy of your attention. Be rigorous in everything you do. But still, don’t be too harsh on yourself. To young Somalis who are interested in graduate school, don’t be scared away. It won’t be easy but it is possible! Do a lot of reading and research before you decide to take the plunge though. It’ll suck to have done 5+ years of grad school to find out this isn’t the what you want to do. Find the kind of work you admire and that you would like to do one day. Don’t be afraid to reach out to those academics whose work you like and who you might want to work with. Iman Mohamed