NSights Blog

North African & Middle Eastern graduation keynote: 'Absorb all that is good'

In her keynote, Shadi Martin helped redefine many of the labels that North African and Middle Eastern students often face

(Editor's Note: On May 8, Shadi Martin, Director and Professor in the School of Social Work, delivered the inaugural keynote address for the North African & Middle Eastern Graduation. Below is text of Dr. Martin's speech.)

Thank you for the kind introduction; I am honored to have been invited to speak to you this evening on this very special occasion of your graduation.

In preparing for this important event, I did a little research to see what makes for a good graduation speech - and the general advice was: keep it short, congratulate the students and give some advice - pretty simple, right!

Although I am happy to whole-heartedly congratulate each and every one of you for completing your studies and reaching this important milestone, I am not here to give you advice. Not that I don't have any advice to give, my two daughters would tell you - as a Persian mother I never run short on advice.

But, as someone who has graduated with six college degrees and attended all my graduations, I can honestly say - I can't remember a single piece of advice that I received at any of my graduations.

So, instead of giving advice that I know you will forget. I want to put the focus on the importance of this graduation event - this inaugural Middle Eastern and North African graduation. I want to spend this time to talk about why it is important to have this special graduation.

When I received the invitation to give the keynote address for the inaugural North African & Middle Eastern Graduation Celebration - my first reaction was...wow...this is a big responsibility and I must get it right. And my second reaction was - I am happy to see that at last, the University is doing a graduation specifically devoted to 'white students.'

As confusing as this may sound to those of you who are not Middle Eastern or North African...just think how confusing it is for Middle Easterners and North Africans to have to mark "white" for their race every time they fill out a federal form or application.

For many of us, the very first time we realized we are legally "white" was when we stared in confusion at a form unable to find any race category that described us. We encountered options for White, Black, Asian, American Indian and Native Hawaiian - but nothing that represented our heritage. Looking closer, we found the definition under "white": "peoples of Europe, the Middle East, or North Africa".

We mark "white" knowing that unlike "whites" we go through our entire lives facing racism, oppression and hate. We endure stereotypes, slurs, attacks, bullying and harassment, all because of the color of our skin and hair, our accents, our names, our features, our religion, our traditions and our origins. We live our lives with the pressure of having to debunk every stereotype, myth and lie ever told about our culture.

To be marked as white in a society that doesn't perceive us as white

To be forced in a box that goes contrary to our daily reality.

We are only white when we apply for admission to college, when we apply for a job or for a grant or scholarship. We are not "white" when we go through the airport security, when we apply for a visa or when a senseless act of terrorism occurs anywhere in the world. We are not white when we are strategically pictured in promotional material to show the diversity of the institutions we belong to.

We are "white" without white privilege and "people of color" without protections.

We mark white reluctantly knowing that this simple stroke of pen renders our entire communities invisible.

As a researcher who focused on the health of Middle Eastern immigrants, I know well the consequences of this simple act. It has made research on our communities nearly impossible as data collected by the census and other federal agencies do not distinguish Middle Eastern and North Africans from "white"

To be mislabelled, misunderstood...and rendered invisible. That is the reality for many Middle Eastern and North African immigrants. A reality that many of you in this room are keenly familiar with.

For many of us in this room, a simple innocent question like "where are you from?" is a complicated loaded question. Especially when answers like "I am American" is often received as insufficient and is followed by "but where are you really from?"

Do I get to be who I am - will I be accepted - is it safe ...

This graduation is wonderful - it is wonderful as it allows you to define yourselves and not be boxed into categories that don't fit you. It signals how important it is to allow for self-expression of identity. To let people define themselves and not be put into categories that are neither biological nor real but simply there to advance political agendas. You get to celebrate your authentic selves.... and be defined by you and only you. You get to truly celebrate who you are and who you have become - and we get to be proud with you!

The very first time I saw this image behind me, I knew exactly what it meant! (Note: Martin referenced a photo of sculpture that was shown to the audience. She describes it below.)

Sculpture photo

The sculpture tells the story of the nomad, the pilgrim, the traveler, the refugee, the immigrant. It symbolizes the vacuum created by being forced to leave one's land, one's life, and one's people.

Each "traveler" carries a suitcase full of dreams, hopes, challenges, expectations, fears. A whole life summarized in a suitcase.

The sculpture is beautifully imperfect.

This sculpture was created by the Moroccan artist Bruno Catalano, who migrated to France from Morocco at the age of 12.

I left Iran when I was 12 - following a bloody revolution and in the midst of even bloodier war. In many ways, my life is no different from that of many other immigrant children. My parents left everything behind in search of a better life for their children. I still feel the intense pressure I have always felt to succeed to assure my parents' sacrifices had not been in vain. At a very young age, I found myself having to navigate the complex American health care system as my parents' health deteriorated and they did not speak English. These early experiences very much oriented my future work and research. I devoted my focus to understanding health disparities among older Middle Eastern immigrants.

I received a Fulbright scholarship to study in Damascus, Syria. One of the most beautiful countries I ever visited. Beautiful for its people, its culture and its geography - today when I hear Syria on the news, I immediately turn the TV off - as it breaks my heart to see what has happened to this beautiful country.

I have lived in many other corners of the world, Morocco, Egypt, Iran, Dubai, Bulgaria, Utah, Alabama, Switzerland, Montreal and now Reno, Nevada. All these places make up the pieces of the place I call home. These places each have occupied a part of the void that has made me more complete more resilient.

I am here to tell you that the void you see in this image - even though a painful reminder of a great loss, it is an invitation - it is an opportunity! An invitation to define who you are - an opportunity to fill the void with what is important to you...with what defines you. You get to write your own story - embrace your own unique identity. You get to define who you truly are - and that is a rare privilege.

Let all the negativity go right through you and instead absorb all that is good, all that makes you feel whole. The void will help you find your authentic self! The void will make you stronger.

As the great Persian poet Rumi puts it: There is a void in your soul and it is ready to be filled!

The desire to belong is an innate part of being human. Everybody wants to feel accepted and to feel that they belong to something larger than themselves. For immigrants to belong, we are told that we must acculturate - which according to the dictionary means: to change so that you become more like people from the host culture.

So just like an onion, immigrants are expected to shed layer after layer of their identity in hopes of belonging and acceptance. We are to lose our language, our accent, our ethnic names, our ethnic clothes, our traditions, our food and sometimes even our religion. Shedding layer after layer until there is nothing left - standing naked and vulnerable and wondering if this is what acculturation should feel like......

In the safety of our home, we cook the food of our childhood - nothing else will do at the end of a long hard day -

So if you are Persian like me, you cook up the wonderful saffron rice and Ghormesabzi and try desperately hard to explain to your daughters who were born in Northport, Alabama, how nothing in the world tastes better than this golden rice.

Then you take the leftover saffron rice and put it in their lunch boxes and send it to school with them- only to have them come home in protest saying mom - don't send Persian food to school with me again - the kids are making fun of me - saying I eat Neon rice.

So your heart breaks a little and you go back to packing them their peanut butter jelly sandwiches and Lunchables. Knowing that someday ..... at the end of a long hard day.... long after you are gone, they will desperately search Google for the recipe for that neon rice ------ because nothing else will do.

I nearly did not attend my Ph.D. graduation. Having already taken a job as a professor at the University of Alabama, I did not want to travel back to Utah to attend yet another graduation - by now I had been through so many graduations; they had lost their novelty and intrigue.

Shadi Martin and her family

Shadi Martin at in between her parents at one of her graduation ceremonies.

But, I took the advice of a good mentor who encouraged me to take the trip to Utah and attend. My parents' eyes beamed with pride at my sixth graduation as it did at the first. I realized then that my graduation was just as much about them as it was about me - it was the proud moment of realization that their profound sacrifices had paid off! Although they have long passed, I know they are with me again at yet another graduation - and they are proud.

So now, I want to ask you to look around the room at your family and friends - the people who have come to share this proud moment with you. This moment is as much about them as it is about you. Feel the presence of those who couldn't be here - but you know there is no other place they would have rather be.

Remember this moment - this is your moment - this is your day of harvest - it has not been simple or easy but you have persisted - be proud of what you have accomplished -

I will see you at your sixth graduation event - make sure not to miss it!

Shadi Martin