The Harvard Commencement Speech I Didn’t Send
Greetings, faculty, staff, parents, and the class of 2023, my precious people.
My name is Zhafira, and to confirm your suspicion, I am that Gen-Z HGSE girl that you might have seen on your screen as you were scrolling through your Tiktok, Instagram, or YouTube on a lazy day. If you’re lucky, you might have even also seen yourself in the background of that video of myself vlogging and recording through my day in Gutman.
Throughout the past 10 months of me being in HGSE, due to my social media activities, I have had many of you come up to me exclaim, “You came up on my social media last night!”
Often times these excitement come from a place of fondness because you and I share common experience as fellow hosts of the Appian Way and you feel a sense of kinship to what my videos show. Other times, it doesn’t stop there. We would dive into a deeper conversation on why I started vlogging, or “video blogging” in the first place.
When there isn’t much time because we were only passing by in between classes, I would say it was because it is the one way I like to express myself and share my story.
But when we have more time, we would sit down, I would break down my walls and say truthfully, “Because I wish there were videos on the experience of a hijabi girl rocking it in Harvard back when I was applying to HGSE.”
And for those of you who are not familiar with the term hijab, it is the headscarf that I put on like my personal crown, and it comes in different colors, patterns, and styles. And, the reality is this: when I was applying to Harvard and did my research to see if there was a cultural fit for me in this institution, there were very few information on the day to day life of a Muslim student, let alone a hijabi woman. If I had still been a young girl who dictated my potential achievement based on the accomplishment of fellow women who wear similar garment as I do, I would have been discouraged and put off by the lack of representation, and it could have been a crucial factor that kept me from applying.
But at 21, which is when I applied to Harvard last year, I have already experienced living as a minority for the previous 4 years of my life and understood that if the path hasn’t been paved, then it is my job to roll my sleeves, pick of the shovel, and pave the way. So one day, I carried my shovel — in this case my pocket camera — with me everywhere and recorded a video that I wish were there the year I was working on my application, titled a week in my life as a hijabi in Harvard. I edited it, created the thumbnail, and hit upload. Done, now any girl in the world who looks like me who need the information I was looking for to see if they too will belong in Harvard can find that video online, just a click away.
What I did not expect was for that video to, soon after, reach 1 million views on YouTube, with its top 5 audience from Indonesia, Malaysia, India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and many more. When I saw this list, and read the truly moving comments from thousands of people who feel seen and motivated, it really showed me how important such representation was for all women who share similar identities with me, who don’t often see themselves in higher educational spaces, let alone an elite institution like Harvard, who finally feel encouraged to perhaps break the glass ceiling one day.
But no one who publicly shares their lives on social media is immune from hate comments, and I am not an exception. Despite the outpouring support and expression of gratitude, my eyes still often catch hateful remarks that say, “You’re only accepted for your hijab,” or “They want you because they were filling a quota,” or “You’re an affirmative action.”
On good days, I will delete those comments and it will have little to no effect on my person. Other days, when I grasp certain concepts a little slower than my classmates and I can hardly keep up with the class discussion, I’d internalize those comments and think to myself that there must be truth in those words. When that happens, I would often be resigned. I mean, look at me. I’m just another international student who is still learning new English vocab everyday, who still has difficulties telling apart the difference between when to use ‘in’ and ‘at’, or can’t seem to pronounce the word “pollen”. It just makes sense.
And for a while, I was constantly on that roller coaster, going up and down, up, and down. Until I took a class called Entrepreneurship in Education by Professor Angela Jackson, and I was chosen among many students to lead a team to start a venture. So my team pitched this venture called Knowbetter, and the idea is we would provide a culturally responsive sex-ed to parents so they will be equipped with the knowledge and skills to have conversations related so sexual rights and reproductive health with their children. It was born out of my personal passion, and it was not at all profitable. For our finals, we had to present our start-up idea and raise fake investment funds from our peers. As part of this class, we learned that female founders are less likely to get funding. Now if you’re a female founder of color, that’s a whole another story. Well, I happened to be triple minority: a woman, a woman of color, and belonging to a marginalized faith group.
So imagine my surprise when, after delivering the pitch, we won the popular vote and received a total of $600,000 of fake investment from our peers. Yes, it was not real money. Yes, it was not at all realistic, let alone an indicator of what would happen if I go out to pitch my product to VCs. I’ve learned enough (and have been told enough) that if I want to actually raise money for my project, I would have to change my storytelling all together. My classmates probably knew that, and the guest investors most likely believe that too.
And yet, we won. Perhaps they did it out of sympathy because they can relate to my cause. Perhaps they genuinely believed in my vision of this utopian world that I want to create through my project. Perhaps they were psyched to fund me after seeing the many people who did, too.
Whatever the intention may have been, that experience, the small win, shifted something in me.
“I knew I worked hard, but I couldn’t help feeling a sense of inferiority all throughout my time there.” I told my friends a few weeks later. “Most times when I see girls like me in the media or even in my current readings, we are always portrayed as second-class citizen that needed saving, and I couldn’t help but internalize that.”
And it’s true. On bad days, I think to myself: who would take a glance at that Muslim girl from some country in Southeast Asia except to showcase diversity for some college’s handbook despite my identity having more value than that?
On those days, the parts of me that are rational and forgiving will whisper: but they don’t know. Because as much as they’re brilliant, people can also be unintentionally ignorant. Because they don’t know, they feel uncomfortable. Because they don’t know, they overlook you altogether to avoid being harmful. If you seriously want to be valued for what you think you’re worth, show them. Let them know what you’re capable of and don’t give them a chance to misjudge you a second time.
And in Dr. Jackson’s class, I did.
“Now I feel like there is a place for me in this world as long as I want to make the effort to carve the spot with my own bare hands. I will have to speak a little louder, demand a seat on the table, and ideally I shouldn’t have to do those things, but the other option is I am overlooked forever. And when I’m overlooked, so is the hundred thousands of girls like me who wish the universe can give them a sign that there is more to this life for them.”
I think I can serve the role of being that sign. I think I would be happy with that being my life purpose: uplifting other girls like me the way I was uplifted by my mother, my grandmother, and many brilliant women who came before me and reached out their hands for me to grab.
And the effort doesn’t end here.
I’ve graduated now and will move on to my next adventure where I know I will need to keep my tall girl energy just to be acknowledged in the room. That’s okay. The moment I committed myself to this mission, I knew the only path forward is the one that I will need to shovel with my own two hands. It’ll be worth it. It has to worth it. And I won’t see immediate, life-changing the results now, tomorrow, or next week. That’s fine, too. As long as there is another hijabi girl who sees me and think, “Oh, so I can be that,” and finds the courage to pursue their dreams, I’ll call that a win.
Because that girl will trigger the same butterfly effect that has brought me to where I am today, and hopefully her presence has made the world a little bit more of an attainable place.