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The pillars of our identity shape who we are

Mohamed Moustafa stressed identity as part of personal growth in his keynote to North African/Middle Eastern Cultural Affinity graduates

(Editor's note: This is the text of Mohamed Moustafa's keynote address to the North African/Middle Eastern Cultural Affinity Graduation celebration held earlier this month. Moustafa is an assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering.)

Thanks, Baria for the kind introduction.

Good evening, dear graduates, family, friends, faculty, and staff,

It is absolutely an honor to be here today speaking with you on the first Cultural Affinity Graduation for the year and the 2nd North African/Middle Eastern Cultural Affinity Graduate celebration. A big shout out to the Center; Every Student. Every Story and the University leadership for honoring our culturally diverse students through a series of very special events that start tonight.

It is exciting to start again our commencement season and tradition after a year or so of challenging times, but here we are… in high spirits enjoying our first celebration for the year.

Before I go on, First things first! Graduates and class of 2021, my heartfelt congratulations to you on your well-deserved success and life milestone!

This is indeed a special event for you but it is special for me as well where today I enjoy my first time experience addressing our students outside the class room or technical meetings environment. In fact, I did not expect that preparing for this short talk will be harder than preparing for an hour-long earthquake engineering lecture! Over the past few days, I have been thinking what piece of advice I would humbly share with our unique and special student community as they start off a new adventure and life chapter, and I could not think of a better reminder to all of us gathering here tonight: “Embrace your identity and Be Proud of who you are!”

There are many pillars that define or shape someone’s identity. Today I want to share with you some of my own identity pillars.. four pillars that contribute to who I am.. my name (given name), language, culture, and religion. As a father, friend, mentor, and professor, I thrive to embrace my identity in both my personal and professional lives and at home, at work, or social events. I often have fears that I might be judged or face discrimination or stereotyping. However, for every negative situation I went through in the past, there were ten positive ones that reassure me that I should continue to embrace my identity.

I was born and raised in Cairo, Egypt and I came to the United States 12 years ago to start graduate school at the University of California, Berkeley. This was NOT my first time experiencing the western cultures since I lived in Europe as a kid for about 2 years in the 90s when my father was pursuing his PhD through a joint program in Netherlands. Later again in 2007, I had the opportunity to spend a full summer in Germany during college.

However, my introduction to the US was a bit different as I was fortunately set to gain my new share of the Western world experiences through the Bay area, one of the most diverse and welcoming regions in the nation. There, I lived in Berkeley, the historical liberal city, for 6 wonderful years before moving to Reno to join the faculty at UNR. At Berkeley, I was there to get my MS and PhD but along the way, I learned a lifelong lesson.. people are brilliant when they are different and the inter- or cross-cultural interactions are endless source of nourishing the human beings souls and minds.

When I was offered the job at UNR, I was not only impressed by one of the best structural and earthquake engineering testing facilities in the nation or arguably the world, but I loved the cultural diversity within the faculty, graduate students, and undergraduate students in the Civil and Environmental Engineering group and at the university as a whole. I did not need more than 2 days to accept the offer and I did not even wait to hear from couple other schools that I interviewed for. I then knew that I will have the infrastructure to pursue an active role in promoting and creating multi-cultural environments where students are safe and encouraged to embrace their identities and be proud of who they are!

As of the example pillars that shape one’s identity, and I say examples because everyone has their very personalized pillars and core beliefs, I will talk only about few of mine. My name is part of my identity! My given name is Mohamed, and I was told several times, why would not I change my name to “Mo” or something more “Western” to have an easier time blending into the society, and these requests were serious and real. My response was.. diluting my identify to escape some stereotyping now will indirectly, or maybe directly, hurt others down the road who take pride in their identity and strive for society acceptance.

I share this identify pillar with many of my students, especially Iranian students, who take pride in using their full Persian names and would love every opportunity to explain the beautiful meanings behind their names. So, Kudos to all of you out there who do the same!

Next pillar is my language. My language is part of my identity! I speak Arabic and I am hoping that my kids could grow up at least understanding and expressing themselves in Egyptian dialect. They are American-Egyptians and they could grow up with a unique identity blending the best out of the two cultures, but Arabic is still very important at our home! A short funny story.. my kids know that I would always ask them to talk to each other in Arabic at home, so if I am at the other side of the house while they talk in English, then they hear me calling their names in a loud angry tone without saying anything else, they will innocently say in a sarcastic tone: “A’rfeen netklm A’araby”, which is “We know, we should speak Arabic”.

At UNR, I had students in my classes from different Arabic countries like Lebanon or Saudi Arabia. Outside the classroom, I do not mind at all speaking to these students in Arabic on academic or non-academic matters, and the reason I do this is to deliver the message that I preserve my identity and so should they do.

The third pillar of my identity is my culture and heritage! I am from Egypt and I enjoy bragging about our long history and rich culture, so a month ago when the world was watching the Pharaohs Golden Parade, I could not help but to talk to many of my non-Egyptian friends and students about it.

When I present this side of my identity, do I face stereotyping? Sometimes Yes! But usually in a funny way. Few years ago, when my wife and I were in a department store, a gentleman heard us talking in Arabic, so he said hi.. and as we talked and he learned we are from Egypt, he told me: “you should be lucky to know how to ride a camel!” I said: well.. only the same way tourists do in the pyramids area maybe but elsewhere I ride a Hyundai car or take the bus. So, I take advantage of moments like this to talk to people more about my country and heritage in a way of promoting diverse cultures in our society here in the US.

The last identity pillar that I embrace and want to share with you is religion, and religion in general not a particular one! So, I do not necessarily announce my religion but I care about observing my worship services and keeping these as part of my regular schedules. When I was a MS student in my first semester, I had one of my final exams scheduled during an important-to-me worship service, so my friends joked about it and told me God will forgive you if you miss that prayer for the exam, which I believe is true. However, I wanted to give it a shot and test the “liberal” system at Berkeley.. I talked to my professor about this and I was very pleased when he told me that he is definitely supportive of accommodating me and that the university allows doing a separate exam slot only for me.. the nice part is that he told me he had students like me before and we should not feel shy or embarrassed to ask for what he called simple basic rights!

So, I gave Berkeley an A+ after this test, and now after being part of the faculty here, I can testify that UNR would not be any different in similar situations. In fact, I had a student three weeks ago who took a moment during our class in Zoom to congratulate me and other students observing Ramadan!

These were few personal experiences I enjoyed sharing with you so thanks for the opportunity that made me contemplate how I define my identity and how I embrace it while I continue to grow into my career and succeed at UNR. I manage a large active research group, I receive competitive research grants, and I proudly represent UNR at national and international, technical and non-technical, events, and I do not think my identify had never been a barrier to accomplish that.

So, I hope my notes did not come through as any sort of “lecture” but rather words of encouragement so that everyone of you will move on to your next life chapter proud of who you are and ready to further support the foundation (yes more engineering terms I know) and pave the way for making larger strides in cultural diversity within the American society.

I wish you all the best with your future endeavors and congratulations again on your well-deserved accomplishment and recognition.

Thank you all!

Mohamed Moustafa
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