Fatima’s Welcome

By Dr. Fatima Baig, Programs Director
Images provided by Dr. Baig

Growing up as a second-generation Pakistani Muslim American in suburban Michigan, I was familiar with the many confused looks and questions I received randomly, from how I didn’t have an accent to how well I knew the culture here. There was a clear distinction between my two communities- the white American community I interacted with at school- and the Muslim community that had a blend of cultures connected through religion. Living amidst two cultures provided a unique worldview that has shaped my identity and focuses on AAPI representation within the field of education. While challenging as a person of color, growing up in suburbia pushed me to question my societal role. I was challenged to develop harmony between my two worlds and learn how to coexist while amplifying my identity as it relates to my two worlds. Both were vital aspects of my identity, and when warranted, I had done an excellent job blending into both spaces. 

Like many Muslims worldwide, September 11, 2001, was a pivotal moment in developing my personal identity. I couldn’t blend into my two very carefully curated communities as easily anymore. I stood out a bit more than my usual awkward teenage self and suddenly became an obvious target while jokes, hushed comments, and blatant racism took the center lead. I was forced to confront the complex truth of who I was and where I came from—where I really came from.

Over the years, I learned to stand firm in my faith and acknowledged that my dual identities were really enveloped in multiple narratives that inculcated my ever-changing identity. It wasn’t until I started teaching 8th graders in Philadelphia that I realized my physical presence- the very part of myself that I couldn’t change drastically enough to fit in with others-provided comfort for others. To my surprise, students in the hallways would stop to ask me where I was from, what kind of food I ate, what languages I spoke, etc. Anything to find some bond because they could tell just by looking at me that I wasn’t like teachers they’ve seen or known before in school. I was the version of their identity separate from American school life. See, while my family and friends followed the routine path of medicine or law, I made my path by empowering youth through education. To provide some context, for a South Asian, the field of education is typically an unconventional route, despite holding education at the center of their personal and professional values. 

As a teacher, I learned how to listen and learn from children of many age ranges. I provided them the space to share their lives, process any emotions or experiences they may be feeling, and converse with an adult who isn’t part of their family unit. It was uncommon yet deeply needed for my students of Asian descent and/or Muslim identities. While teaching, I learned that my presence as a South Asian and Muslim educator was impactful from an academic perspective but also provided comfort for those underrepresented and battling the balance between both identities. This is precisely why I firmly believe in the power and impact of AALEAD. I’ve experienced the effects of growing up second-generation torn between two cultures. I have been the educator/mentor/adult with a listening ear and guide for those learning to navigate their unique cultural divides. I’m genuinely grateful for the presence and meaningful impact of AALEAD in our communities and am excited to work in leading the change for program innovation and representation for all.

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