From Islamabad to New York
By Sauleha Kamal
My first year at college in New York has had its ups and downs, but I’ve learnt so much from the experience that I’m glad I decided to venture away from home. Sometimes, I wish I could split myself into two: one “me” who would live in New York, attend college and another “me,” who could still be at home in familiar Islamabad with the comfort of family, old friends and the sense of belonging that automatically comes from living with homogenous surroundings. Studying abroad is so many things: it is stepping out of your comfort zone; it is the thrill of making your own decisions, the overwhelming feeling of having real responsibilities; the incredible joy of having a whole new city to discover and the unwelcome realization that you are an adult. It is the excitement at living in the same building as all of your new friends and the despair of being 1000 miles away from the ones you grew up with; the chance to taste fancy cheeses and sample different cuisines and the yearning for home-cooked Biryani. (If you’re in a global city like New York, though, you can find plenty of things that remind you of home. My first month in New York, after taking a long Urdu placement test to satisfy a language requirement, I decided to eat from one of the famous “Halal food carts” that sell Middle Eastern gyros and chicken and rice, and found out that the vendors were Pakistani too.)
The experience itself is an education, as obvious as that may sound. The learning that takes place outside of the hallowed circles of academia, the one that does not register a blip on your GPA, is perhaps the most important lesson of all. For most of us, it‘s the first time ever that we are responsible for ourselves. Breaks between classes, suddenly, include laundry; the bumpy Subway rides make you miss your car; shopping is, more often than not, a late-night hunt for cereal, after you‘ve missed the cafeteria hours and having your own bank account comes with managing your own finances. Despite the responsibilities, such freedom, of course, has its perks too. You can de-stress in Central Park after a particularly hard midterm, watch the opera at the Met for class, walk down beautiful Madison Avenue on the Upper East Side, order authentic Spaghetti Puttanesca in Little Italy and visit designer stores in artsy SoHo.
There are moments when you are overwhelmed by the gravity of it all but there are moments when you are in awe of your surroundings. It is almost surreal to walk around campus with the knowledge that presidents, celebrities and Nobel Prize winners once treaded the same grassy paths. It is amazing to learn how much your peers can teach you and how much you have in common with both your all- American roommate and the exchange student from the Philippines. These individual experiences, in my opinion, do more to bridge the gap between different cultures, religions and races than all the conferences in the world. Such interactions can help you see how everyone else views you and the places you call home and, perhaps, change the way you see their worlds too.
Sauleha Kamal is an undergraduate student at Barnard College, New York.