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The Stories We Carry

By Sana Saeed

Sana Saeed

Sana Saeed

On March 14th, 2013, I was sitting in my office at the Interfaith Alliance, a non-profit in Washington DC, while watching CNN’s live feed of the Vatican. I was watching the white smoke billowing out of the Sistine Chapel as I waited for the new pope to be introduced, and in that moment, I had decided to check my email and saw that I had a “Congratulations” message waiting from Harvard Divinity School (HDS) at Harvard University. My hand shook as I clicked the email open, and when I read the word “admitted” I cried. A lot. It was the one school and university in my mind that was unattainable. I don’t know if that was just because of my own insecurities or if that was what I was socialized to think.

Because of that feeling, I didn’t let anyone know that I was applying to Harvard. I didn’t tell my parents, I didn’t tell my best friends or my colleagues. I didn’t want anyone to know, in case I didn’t get in. Because I thought maybe it would be easier to deal with a rejection letter alone. But, the other part of my reason I kept it to myself, was because I didn’t want to hear from anyone that it’s hard to get into Harvard or that my former academic preparation wasn’t good enough or that I wouldn’t get in because I didn’t fit into what a Harvard grad is supposed to be. Mostly, I didn’t want people to tell me to prepare for a no in advance, because then what would be the point in applying?

So, I didn’t tell anyone. When I called my mom, you can imagine that awkward conversation. I started by saying, “Hey mom, so I did something, and I didn’t tell you about it in advance” (by the way don’t ever start a conversation with a parent like that, because they freak out). She responded, “Oh no, what did you do”. I went on to tell her, “I applied to school at Harvard for theology and I was just accepted.” There was a bit of a pause, and then her one-word response was “whattttttt?”. I said again, “I just got into Harvard mom”. The next few minutes were a blur, because she ran around the house screaming “she got into Harvard” to my confused father, grandma and brother and she accidentally hung up on me.

For the next few hours, I got calls from random relatives I hadn’t heard from in ages. I questioned whether this response was part of why I had kept my application to Harvard a secret.

But, another reason soon emerged. One family member asked me, “Oh did you get into the distance learning program at Harvard?” implying I got into what he perceived to be an easier program to get into. In another experience, at a dinner party with friends, a person I had just met asked me if I had meant to say I got into Howard University. Implying it was an easier university to get into, and that was frankly racist. I would have been lucky to be admitted to Howard University, which I consider a stellar university with a superb divinity school. It’s strange to think there are weird stereotypes people hold about others, and stranger yet, that they feel comfortable vocalizing their harmful thoughts. Maybe this is what I was protecting myself from when I didn’t tell anyone about my application? Maybe I was protecting myself from the sexist and racist stereotypes people wanted me to internalize as insecurities. This eventually did have an impact on me, when I started school. For the first year, I dealt with the imposter syndrome thinking that - as a woman of color - I didn’t really belong there, maybe Harvard made a mistake in admissions.

My admission to HDS came at a time where I was at a crossroads. I was 29, about to turn 30. At the same time, I had also been admitted to a fully funded program as a Rotary Peace Fellow in Japan for two years. I had to decide between attending HDS or being a Rotary Peace Fellow. Luckily, HDS allowed me to defer my acceptance and I was able to live in Japan where I witnessed stories of peacebuilding and interfaith dialogues that has benefited my ministry.

So, why am I sharing this personal story of who I am? Well, to use the words of, Zora Neale Hurston who wrote in her book, Dust Tracks on a Road, “There is no agony like bearing an untold story inside you”. Like Hurston I believe we all have the ability to share stories in different ways. We are layers and layers of stories passed down by our ancestors. Our stories are made from struggles and joys that have made us resilient. These stories need to be shared, because by sharing our stories we have the power to change the things that we feel are unjust and to keep hope alive. They allow us to witness and support one another, and some stories inspire us to do things we never dreamt we could.

As the Nigerian author, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie says in her Ted Talk titled “The Danger of a Single Story”,

“Stories matter. Many stories matter. Stories have been used to dispossess and to malign, but stories can also be used to empower and to humanize. Stories can break the dignity of a people, but stories can also repair that broken dignity.”

She goes on to share that sometimes we may have something really great happening at the same time another story is playing out where something emotionally painful is also happening. We’re more than a single story at one time.

So, I share one part of my story. I’m excited to be joining CER as a Congregational Life Staff. Beginning new work, meeting new people and building relationships is one of the joys of this ministry for me. But more importantly, I’m excited to learn your stories as we connect with each other through the CER. I hope you’ll reach out if you need anything from me as your primary contact, and I’ll be in touch!