Before Amherst, lived in: Starkville, Miss., and Atlanta
Music playing at photo shoot: Indie folk music from Gregory Alan Isakov
On the idea of belonging:
The QRC is my one safe-haven space. I think that’s where I feel like I belong, mostly. I joke a lot that it’s my second home. I spend a lot of time there. Usually in between classes I’m there, after class, before dinner, after dinner. I’m almost always there. I think my closest friends are people who either work at the QRC or come regularly into the QRC.
But the word “belong” also makes me think about the negatives, every place I don’t belong. Like Mississippi. My parents immigrated to America from Ethiopia and we’re Muslim, so that intersection of “immigrant Muslim family” already made us outsiders. We moved from Atlanta to Mississippi when I was 7, and the feeling of not belonging was amplified just because people have a lot of prejudices.
In Mississippi, people would ask me questions, not so much personal as misguided and just based off of prejudices and ideas that they had already built up. And I was like, “Would you ask anyone else this? This doesn’t seem like a very nice question.” I would get a lot of questions about prayer and a lot of questions about, like, “Why don’t you cover your hair?” and then about eating pork. Or “Do your parents not speak English at home? Do your parents know how to speak English?”
The idea of belonging a lot of the time has to do with identity. My racial identity, that’s the one thing that you see first. That definitely will either make people welcome me into the space or make people be like, “Uh, maybe you shouldn’t be here.”
Then, I’m queer. So that’s also another thing that just makes me feel very uncomfortable in a lot of spaces: if I look around and I know that most of the people there aren’t queer. That’ll just make me feel like I shouldn’t be there.
Those are the two things that really usually affect me and how I feel like belonging in a space. My religion is not that big of a factor. I think I’m more of an agnostic Muslim, if that makes sense. I don’t go to mosque, and I don’t pray all the time, but part of me believes that there is something. And that part of me aligns with the Muslim faith.
I chose Amherst because when I visited, I very much felt at home as soon as I came to campus. I saw a lot of diversity in a way that I haven’t seen in Mississippi. In Mississippi, a large portion of the population is African-American, but that didn’t include immigrants, and that didn’t include international students. Whereas when I came here, it’s like, “Wow, there’s a lot of everyone.” That definitely made me feel at home.
This feeling has changed over time. Not that I don’t feel like Amherst is my home, but there’s a lot more tension when I go into certain spaces, I think, and there are very specific spaces, like the QRC, like my dorm and my friends’ rooms, where I feel comfortable and I feel like I belong. There are those spaces where I feel like, “OK, these are my spaces.” But there are spaces, like the gym and the first level of Frost, usually I don’t feel like I belong there.
My freshman year, my people ended up just being the people on my floor, which I felt fine with at the time, but there was always this weird thing where I was always the one queer person or always the one African-American person in the room. I didn’t feel super uncomfortable, but also I was hyper-aware of the fact that I was the only one there.
This year, my sophomore year, I would take it upon myself to go into the QRC and to go into the MRC and to go to BSU and go to all these places where I was intentional in finding people who had similar experiences to me. So that helped a lot with my feeling of, “Oh, there are other people on this campus that have similar identities to mine.”
On the experience of being photographed:
It was definitely nerve-racking. I’m not comfortable around cameras. I don’t take many pictures of myself anyway. My parents always get mad at me because I don’t take pictures when I go on trips, so I don’t have anything to show them. Seeing myself in a picture is just this weird, uncomfortable feeling.
I played some Gregory Alan Isakov music. He’s very chill; it’s acoustic music. That’s how I was feeling that day. I woke up and I was like, “I need some Gregory Alan in my life.” I think I was just in the mood for the calming guitar feel.
The photo shoot experience was definitely really interesting. We did a lot of shots where the camera was super close to my face. Me and Jonathan would just basically be staring at each other, as I stared into the camera. [Jonathan Jackson ’19 worked with College photographer Maria Stenzel to take the photos.] I was sitting down for all of it. There were a few times that they were like, “Oh, try this pose, try turning around, looking at us, or try putting your hands on your face,” and stuff like that. But mostly it was just like, “Do your thing and see what we feel comfortable with.”
What was it like to see my photo for the first time? I really liked it. I like that my eyes are closed, and I like how my hands are positioned. The hand position gives a nice symmetry to the photo, which I really like. The photograph is… yeah, I’m thinking peaceful.