Equity & Diversity

Immigrant Daughter Lands at ‘Dream’ School

By Catherine Gewertz — November 29, 2016 6 min read
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Last year, Ayat Husseini’s college dream was crumbling. Her father wouldn’t let her leave home to attend her first-choice school. But now, she’s savoring classes and activities on the picture-postcard campus of her dreams.

The story of how this teenager’s college hopes triumphed over her family’s fears and objections is at once unique and universal, an American tale and an immigrant’s journey. It illuminates the kinds of cultural hurdles that sometimes prevent—or threaten to prevent—high-achieving children from immigrant families from choosing postsecondary schools to match their academic promise.

Ayat’s tale is peppered with hope, fear, faith, and courage, and made possible by the right kinds of help at exactly the right moments.

When Education Week visited the Husseini family last December, the situation was tense. Ayat had just worked up the nerve to tell her parents that she really wanted to leave their home in New York City to attend Lafayette College in Pennsylvania. Her father, Refaat Husseini, a cook from a small Lebanese village where girls live at home until marriage, wouldn’t hear of it. He worried: Would she be safe? Would drugs, alcohol, and mischievous students lead her astray from Islam?

Her mother, Salam Akil, who grew up in Beirut, was struggling with her own fears that Ayat would drift from her religious and cultural roots. But she wanted to let her try out her wings, so she was mediating between her husband and her daughter.

“I have fears of the unknown, but I never shut the doors, I always kept a space of light to see, to take the adventure,” Akil said of the months of family talks and college visits that ultimately allowed Ayat to move away to school.

Father Reconsiders

Those months helped Refaat Husseini feel calmer and more confident about his daughter’s safety as she ventured from home and convinced him it was an opportunity she shouldn’t miss. Ayat had other options, in New York City, but one was a much less selective school, and the other would have required her to take a long subway ride into an unsafe neighborhood.

“At first I had to say no, it was too hard [to let her go],” Husseini said. “Then I think about her, not about ourselves. And I want her to get a better education, a hundred times better than I had, something to protect herself for the future.”

The first part of the process unfolded at home, as Akil worked to persuade Husseini to consider letting their daughter live in a college dormitory. She pointed out that even his brother’s daughters, in Lebanon, left their village to attend college. She scoured Islamic teachings for support, reading aloud to him a quote from the Prophet Muhammad’s cousin, Ali ibn Abi Talib: “Do not raise your children the way your parents raised you; they were born for a different time.” Sometimes they argued. When he listened quietly, Akil knew there was hope.

Making Connections

Outside the Husseini home, at Ayat’s high school in Queens, her college counselor was playing a quiet but powerful role. Lauren Quigley knew that heavy lobbying was not the right approach with this family, although she yearned to see one of her star students attend her number-one-choice school. So she hung back, touching base occasionally, but mostly letting the Husseinis seek her out when they had questions.

“I was thinking, let’s just see if we can get them up to campus for a visit. Maybe that will be their epiphany moment,” Quigley recalled. Many of her immigrant students find that college visits replace their parents’ abstract fears with concrete information and reassurance.

But Quigley also did something that proved pivotal in the Husseinis’ journey: She called Taaha Mohamedali, Lafayette’s coordinator of multicultural recruitment. The Young Women’s Leadership School of Astoria, where Quigley works with a student population from more than 50 countries, has a long-standing relationship with Lafayette, so Quigley knew Mohamedali well. She briefed him on the family’s concerns and dynamics, and he offered to meet with them. To the counselor’s delight, Ayat’s parents agreed to visit on an admitted-students’ day in the spring.

Ayat Husseini, right, a Lebanese immigrant from New York, hangs out with Nina Milligan, a fellow freshman, in Ayat’s dorm room at Lafayette College in Easton, Pa. A year ago, Ayat was still working to persuade her parents to let her leave home to enroll at Lafayette.

As Ayat blended into a sea of student activities on campus, Mohamedali met with her parents. Both Akil and Husseini said they felt an immediate connection with this young Muslim who’d grown up in Queens, where they live. The three chatted about their shared experiences and faith, discussing passages from the Quran. He said he saw his role as that of listener.

“I asked them what was important to them for Ayat and her development, what makes her special to them,” Mohamedali recalled.

That resonated with Akil. “I told him, I said, look, if Ayat comes here, it’s going to be ... trusting you with this special treasure that you must hold safe for me. I could tell he understood that.”

On a walk around campus, Husseini asked about security and safety and about the job prospects of Lafayette graduates. The parents wanted to know if halal food, made in compliance with Islamic law, was available. Mohamedali answered their questions. He was upfront: The Muslim community at Lafayette is small, but growing. Halal food was on the runway, but not quite available yet. He introduced the Husseinis to members of the campus Muslim Students Association, who discussed their religious life on campus, their community-service work. Akil noticed and appreciated that several of the women wore hijabs, or headscarves.

The day was starting to have an effect on Refaat Husseini.

“We see it’s a good college, that she will be challenged, that she will be able to do something good over there for her life,” he said. “From that point, we start to say, OK, maybe we let her go.”

“Talking with Taaha was a turning point,” Akil said.

A Decision Takes Shape

Back home in Queens, Husseini and Akil had many more rounds of discussion. They felt themselves moving toward letting Ayat go. Small but significant things fell into place that eroded the remaining barriers. The college had already offered a hefty financial-aid package, but at the last minute, to help the Husseinis, it knocked its $700 commitment deposit down to $100. Mohamedali said there were no guarantees Ayat could live in a single-sex dorm, but when she emailed the housing office, she got a response “within minutes,” Ayat said, saying they’d be happy to save a place for her in a women’s dorm.

“Things were telling us,” Akil said. “It was meant to be.”

By the time Ayat sent Lafayette the deposit, the tables had turned: Refaat Husseini was reassuring his wife that the choice was a good one, that Ayat would flourish, conquer new challenges, and still carry her faith and heritage with her. Akil knew it was true, but the reality of daily life without her daughter was setting in. There were tearful days.

Ayat’s first few months in college have been marked by the textbook joys and sorrows. Trying to juggle new time-management demands. Waves of homesickness. Excitement about her classes and new friends. Balancing a connection to her family with a new, healthy separateness.

Phone calls soon became an issue. Ayat’s family was frustrated and hurt that she didn’t call often enough or was too busy to talk. She wanted space and independence. They worked it out, but it was the first bittersweet taste of a new stage of life.

On her own at school now, Ayat is still struggling with the “culture shock” of absorbing social, cultural, and political views very different from her own. As a Muslim, a Lebanese immigrant, a working-class city girl accustomed to intense diversity, she sees clearly how different her experience and views are from those of many of her classmates on this predominantly white, affluent campus. She pushes open her mind’s doors to absorb and respect a tumble of new ideas.

But she’s thriving on the differences, the challenges that make her bigger every day.

“Even the hard parts are highlights,” Ayat said, “because there’s absolutely nothing that I’m not learning from.”

Coverage of the experiences of low-income, high-achieving students is supported in part by a grant from the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation, at www.jkcf.org. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.

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