Navigating the College Experience: Nihal’s Narrative

“We are drowning in information, while starving for wisdom. The world henceforth will be run by synthesizers, people able to put together the right information at the right time, think critically about it, and make important choices wisely.” ~E. O. Wilson
 
College can be a stressful time for parents and children alike. There is much to be decided between what to major in, tuition costs, and family expectations. This article will discuss my personal journey through college, how I picked my major, what I took away, some points of reflection, situations I encountered, and advice for parents and students alike. It’s going to be informal and more of a narrative than an academic piece, since it’s my own reflection of the events that took place.
 

College Turbulence

College did not come at an easy time in my life. I graduated with a low GPA in a subject which I do not feel much affinity towards now. Though I definitely advocate for getting good grades in college, my external and internal circumstances did not allow me to do so overall. In my freshman year I was searching for what I wanted to do in college like a typical first year student, but at the same time I had some personal issues that came up from the the start. I had family in and out of the hospital, I was dealing with the politics and poetics of working in the greater Muslim community as a paid employee, and I had no idea what I wanted to do. All of these issues compounded and I finished off my first year with a 2.0 GPA. The next year I took an alternative route by taking a year off to step away and reassess my educational priorities. I went to study Arabic and returned a year later. My sophomore year was spent in business school as I was told I have no other choice in my course of study since I did not want to pursue medicine, law, or engineering. In my third year I declared myself a Psychology major and also spent the year helping my family move to Atlanta from New Jersey, trying to find a place to live for myself, assisting in selling our home, and other personal issues I was going through which once again significantly affected my performance in college. To add, I ended up singlehandedly moving six times between 2013-2014 in New Jersey. In my senior year I was inundated with working multiple jobs to pay for my rent–delivering pizzas, teaching, private tutoring, selling used items, sales, and a short stint in prison chaplaincy, before I moved out of New Jersey. I was working thirty hours a week between three jobs while also taking fifteen credits a semester. I just had too much on my plate. At the end of college, I had worked eleven jobs over five years and graduated with a degree in Psychology and minor in Business, alhamdulillah.
 

Majors, Majors, and Majors

Though I had a very strong leaning towards the humanities and liberal arts in subjects besides my major, initially I kept leaning towards teaching – and it was an advantage being enrolled in one of the top teaching colleges in New York and New Jersey. I ended up not doing that, but instead pursued Psychology with the condition that I pursue a PhD in the field to have a career for the long run as a psychologist. The reason I did not pursue teaching was solely because I was told by friends and elders alike that I would be broke, broke, and broke if I professionally pursued teaching. Sadly, our youth are told from a young age to completely abandon creativity and entrepreneurship in lieu of focusing on how we’ll get our first job and not our sixth (as Fareed Zakaria brilliantly stated). We major (or are forced to major) in something STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) related – even if it is not our calling, and then think that is the only way to secure our future.
Finally, in my last semester, I realized that I did not want to pursue graduate studies in Psychology as I really found the subject to be nothing more than a light hobby. Though I had already decided on pursuing Islamic Studies in India the year prior, I realized that I genuinely wanted to pursue law school when I returned. I took some practice LSAT exams, requested introductory info from various law schools, and spoke to several established attorneys who advised me. In my last semester in college, I took a class on Christian History and Theology. I was completely hooked. I was studying, researching, discussing, and taking notes like I’d never done before. I felt compelled to do extra readings, paralleling historical facts, and to constantly be in extracurricular discussions with my professor. Since it was too late in my college career for me to change my major, I decided to apply for my Master’s degree in Religious Studies with a focus on Islam – and, to my surprise, I was accepted even with my low GPA. At this point I’d also received an invitation to pursue my PhD in the same field once I complete my Master’s and ‘Alimiyyah degrees.

Skills Flourish Outside the University

Honestly, I believe my written statement and in-person and phone meetings with the institution made all the difference in the world. But those writing and speaking skills did not come from college, instead they came from those eleven jobs and several peer mentors that helped prepare me to get into the Master’s program. I did not gain skills in sales, counseling, teaching, public speaking, employee management, non-profit, tech support, telemarketing, project management, budget balancing, marketing, graphic design, professional media editing, curriculum development, fundraising, or local politics from college. That was all from hands-on experience. To add to the irony, at the end of my college career, teaching and counseling became the two skills I was being hired for before I had even graduated college – and these are two of the most important skills needed in the field I am pursuing now. I cannot stress how important reading, writing, and speaking skills have become in the work force today to help an employee climb the ladder of success in whatever they are doing, but sadly we see a large lack of those skills in the majority of college students.
I realized that college will just about barely get your foot in the door to wherever you want to go. Presenting yourself with marketable skills and a large network is what will majorly determine your success in your long run career. And the greatest skill sets you can market yourself with is by showing how well read you are, how you are as an expressive writer, and the eloquence of your speech.

Advice to Parents and Students

I wrote this short post to give parents and current students some insight as to my own college experience. If you were to ask me for advice on what to major in, I would say it depends on a few things: what you are passionate about learning, what you are doing to formulate your life goals, and your financial situation. Personally I was passionate about the liberal arts and still am. If I could do it all again I think I would have double majored in History and Religious Studies and minored in Political Science. At the same time my financial situation did not make my family dependent upon me, so I did not need to pursue a major like computer science, finance, or engineering where I could quite easily find a job right out of school. Not to mention that math is not my strongest subject, but you get that point. But generally, I believe students entering college as eighteen year old freshmen do not have responsibilities requiring them to go to work right away for the most part in the Muslim community.
To the beloved and respected parents: please understand that college is a time to learn for your child. It is when they will begin automating cognitive habits, learn how to think, and begin understanding how to learn. It is more than a place to just get a STEM degree. Let your child explore and figure out whatever he or she likes and help them become the best at whatever they wish to study. Mediocrity cannot be endorsed. Also, if your child wants to take time off from school because they do not find it beneficial, than let them figure things out if your family is not dependent upon him or her. I understand you worked hard and turned your knuckles purple in providing for your child and giving him or her the best life you could give them. Your desire for their success is the root of your heart’s wishes. But please know that their happiness most likely rests in them finding what they’re good at and can contribute with for the rest of their lives – even if their salary is not large (There’s a link below the student section which you should read regarding salaries).
To the students: the Muslim community is more in need of new ways of thinking, entrepreneurship, and creativity than ever before. Get out of your comfort zone and explore what academia has to offer your intellectual pursuits. Being part of a community means establishing yourself in a position where you can give back – and that doesn’t just mean by organizing events at your MSA. It means providing unspoken high class service in whatever you do, to the masses, as a Muslim. It’s assuring to see an etched path in medicine, law, computer science, or engineering – where you can say you’ll be established in that field in an x number of years. If you’re proficient and passionate about those areas, then go for it. If you’re not (as I am) and instead prefer the liberal arts, than consider making your mark in whatever subject you’re passionate about. Mark Zuckerberg said that Facebook is “as much psychology and sociology as it is technology”, so don’t think you’ll be missing out if you decided to pursue a non-STEM major. Actually, the Association of American Colleges and Universities reports that liberal arts majors end up making more in the long run than STEM majors. https://www.aacu.org/leap/presidentstrust/compact/2013SurveySummary

Extra Resources:

A must read for parents and students alike: In Defense of a Liberal Education by Fareed Zakaria: http://www.amazon.com/Defense-Liberal-Education-Fareed-Zakaria/dp/1442389761
Starting the conversation on college majors with family: Dad, I’m Not Going to Medical School: http://muslimmatters.org/2014/04/14/dad-i-not-going-medical-school-real-talk-parents/
Lessons I learned from working and traveling: 21 Things I Learned at 21 .

Nihal graduated from Montclair State University in 2014 with a bachelor’s degree in Psychology and a minor in Business. He currently lives in Lucknow, India where he is pursuing an ‘Alimiyyah degree (BA equivalent in Islamic Law and Theology) from Nadwatul ‘Ulama. He is also an MA candidate in Islamic Studies from the Hartford Seminary in Connecticut and also holds a diploma in Arabic from the Bayyinah Institute.

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11 responses to “Navigating the College Experience: Nihal’s Narrative”

  1. Um Aneesa says:

    Great post! With 2 kids in post secondary education, would be great to see a post on navigating the academics of college courses for freshmen such as the humanities & critical lenses.

  2. Yusuf says:

    A good question to ask also is why are you ultimately sending your child to school?

    Is it to learn or is it to earn ?

    It is to potentially earn more money not to learn per say. However for the most part the student will be getting a “grade” then learning to make money and providing. You study textbooks and listen to lectures, you are not taught how to make money.

    When you do apply for a job they ask if you have any job experience, but they wont have any because they were in school. Interning is the best thing one can do while in school, however you might as well have just worked or interned without going to school.

    Just think about it, imagine your son just graduated university and now must apply for a job or start his own business. Where are you going to apply for a job, do you even know what company or job you want?

    Go there now without a degree and ask them what qualifications you need to work there, you may find out you dont need that particular degree you were planning on or a degree at all….

    Education is also a form of status, and status is important to people(dawats). Obeying your parents is also important, we must remember that.

    And Allah knows best

  3. Mahmoud says:

    Salam,

    I was just wondering if you can explain your decision to go overseas to pursue Islamic studies: when did you decide it, how, and why? How did you transition from a subject like psychology to Islamic studies. And perhaps most interesting to me is your choice of the Nadwa in Lucknow. Most people go to Arab countries to study but you did not. What led you to go there? Jazak

  4. Fahad says:

    Asalamu alaikum Nihal,

    I couldn’t find where the link you provided said that liberal arts majors end up making more than STEM majors. Could you please clarify? JazakAllah khair bro! Love the article.

    -Fahad

  5. Nihal Khan says:

    See the link which is posted above: https://www.aacu.org/leap/presidentstrust/compact/2013SurveySummary

    And if it was “clearly untrue” then there wouldn’t be a link, right? ;)

  6. British Bengali muslim says:

    I’ve got to disagree with the idea to study liberal non STEM subjects. Passion doesn’t pay, and I don’t see us Muslims studying political science and becoming the foreign minister or economics and becoming a lecturer at a top uni. We just don’t have these avenues open to us, stick with medicine and engineering, it is a useful skill and pays the bills.

    I haven’t started my degree yet but I realised how much pointless things we learn, even at degree level it clearly seems so, and I’m talking about engineering, I just feel liberal subjects would be worse. why do degrees in history and so on, I feel I can satisfy my interest in the Islamic golden age by just reading what’s online no need to do a degree on it.

    I think Muslims should study Islam its history it basic tenants to make us proud and a want to be practising as well as a subject that would bring tangible realistic benifit.

  7. […] consciously decided to pursue Islamic studies at a full-fledged level in my last year of undergrad at Montclair State. I was initially planning on pursuing law school as a career path; I can happily say I found my […]

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