A little update for those that have been reading this blog from the beginning — I’m going into my final year at Cambridge which requires a lot more unpacking, but this post is something I wished had existed when I made my application, and have been wanting to write for a while. The title is not the most nuanced but I am hoping the buzz words and generalisations here will help make them accessible for all those in a similar situation.
I watched my elder sister go to a university in London and it was always an option and ambition. However, everything around my university of choice: Cambridge; the moving out for university bit, living alone for the first time, the barriers and cultural differences that came with it as a Muslim, Bengali woman, was completely unheard of for my parents. I know for some, University implies leaving home for three years and potentially never moving back, for me it did not. Often, the first question from prospective applicants who have a similar background to me is questions about moving out, to them, as it sometimes did for me, that almost seemed more difficult than the academic hurdles. Their questions are more focused on my parents’ reactions and how my living arrangement works now than the intense academic pressure. I have had conversations with so many who are worried to bring this up at all to their parents. People who are worried to make an application in the event that they don’t receive an offer and will then have brought up this conversation for no reason. Despite the good work being done by universities on making these institutions more accessible, I think this is a part that is difficult for an admissions team to address and quite specific to our community. I hope sharing my experience helps and if anything, just reassures those of you who have the ambition and capability that no cultural barrier should prevent it.
Part I: the moving out bit, convincing your parents
My ambitions for Cambridge were not met with the same enthusiasm I or my teachers had, by my parents. It was constant and soul wrenching frustration as I would come home with good grades and yet, Cambridge just was not necessary; an ambitious hassle and just slightly out of reach. For me, academia and putting everything into my studies was not something enforced at home or school. My parents saw no need for me to go to what I considered the best university for me and make such a big move when there were plenty safer, easier and cheaper options nearby. I guess what I am saying here is my parents did not really understand, or know how to respond or cater to my ambitions. I think it took a while for them to understand how different our outlooks were. For me, my academic ambitions and capabilities was channelling that defensive streak I always had in me. The anger of not being enough, of doing something just for myself, it was leaving behind the teenage behaviour of secondary school; an escape from teenage traumas and expectations at home and school. I guess I am also saying, I was not that bookworm super smart kid reading Dickens at age eight. I was often the kid outside the classroom, the teenage girl embroiled in silly school girl drama and at home, the mature and too big for my own boot’s elder sister.
With that context, when I realised I could go to Cambridge and how much I wanted to, I would be met with firm no’s from both parents. My Mum never placed academic pressure on me, she was happy when I came home with A*’s and there to tell me it doesn’t really matter when I was stressed and came home with bad grades. Which I was beyond grateful for. For her and my dad, having not been to university or really understanding the ranking of universities, their measure of what was ‘best’ what was closest to my house and familiar. I think the first hurdle to convincing my parents to allow me to move out of home, to a city an hour’s drive away was explaining why Cambridge was so important to me. It was explaining the concept of Oxbridge, top Uni’s and the opportunities they could open up and visualising for them the specific academic and career path I see for myself. Prior to that, Cambridge was just another of 100’s of universities, in another city that we were not from nor lived in. Foreign to them in ways it would be to me once I had got in. Slowly, my mum understood how much Cambridge meant for me – I remember my Dad saying “darling you can go Cambridge, I will even pay for your travel, but you must stay at home” – not realising that moving out came with this.
As much as my parents never pushed any career on me – not even doctor, lawyer, engineer, they did not always share or encourage my ambitions. They had and probably always will, have an unsettling sense of fear and desire for safety. They’ve never been able to dream in the way I have. They learnt to survive, to create beginnings and safe foundations for us, in a way that my dream chasing and wondering does not follow on from. I spent a lot of time just explaining to my mum and asking her friends and my friends mothers to also explain. My sisters were always on board and really encouraged me throughout.
It is important to understand the reasons or the premise from which your parents are disagreeing with you moving out for University. For my parents it was rooted in cultural expectations of a young girl living at home until she was married, it was about the fear of being in such a ‘foreign’ environment unlike where I grew up, Newham. I decentred the conversation and their worries to a perspective where we share ideals, in faith. I explained my intentions to my parents. Studying was never out of fear that I would be told off for not getting the best grades. It was a deeply personal thing rooted from my belief that we are obliged to seek knowledge and to use our opportunities and talents to excel in our chosen fields and give back. It was not about doing the bare minimum to get into a job. Once I explained my intentions to my parents, the conversation was about Cambridge, not about a young woman living alone and moving out of home. It was about studying in one of the best institutions worldwide and choosing to enter a high pressured, intensely academic environment. I convinced my parents I was moving out for the right reasons – for an amazing education, and for Cambridge, not to be away from their rules or watch. My parents never really mentioned things about partying or doing things they would not approve of. Partly because of my low noise tolerance but also because there was nothing they disapproved of at home to mention it or have those fears about University.
As I worried about getting an interview and then making the grades to meet my offer, my mother worried about her daughter growing up for three pivotal years away from home. This was also about trust, which I will touch on a later post at greater depth, but my parents feared their good daughter going away and growing up away from them. They worried about not being able to ‘watch’ me. I had to explain this was no different to everything else I did by myself. It was always about the values they instilled in me, trusting how they raised me and not because they were watching me. My parents were pretty strict growing up and I had to understand for them, moving out also meant ‘freedom’. I asked my mum to trust in how she brought me up and the person I am, not the potential fears. After all, every terrible thing she feared happening could just as easily be happening the time I spent outside of the house here. In an odd way these arguments about; why I ‘had to go’,‘how could they possibly not understand how amazing this was?’, ‘doesn’t she trust me?’ bonded us and led to my mum reiterating how much she did trust and have faith in me.
I also assured my mum that if I got in and made the grades, it was meant to be. The way we communicated was in our common belief. Getting in to Cambridge then, was a sign from Allah that I could and should be there. I asked my mum to pray if it was the right thing for me; now and in three years. To pray it works out. It was a way of saying let’s put both of our worries aside and put our trust in Allah, whatever happens is what is meant to be.
By results day my parents were beyond overjoyed and immediately made preparations for me to move out. The first few weeks as a fresher, as I cried endlessly and told my parents I don’t think I can do it, it was them that said it would be difficult but I could do it. By the end, my parents shared my dream and ambition, they believed in my capability. They saw how much I wanted this and at points of complete burnout and exhaustion these past two years where I felt like I could not continue, they became my biggest motivators and the people I most wanted to get through it for.
I hope this was helpful and gave you some pointers of how to approach these conversations, please feel free to leave comments or get in touch if there is anything more specific or personal.
Lots of love and good wishes,
—- keep an eye out for Part II: worries about losing faith, fitnas, stumbles, culture shocks and changing.