Belonging, and How I Got There
By Aadil Sulaiman, SSH’14
On March 11, 2010, I was accepted to Northeastern University. Boston? In the fall? With the financial aid I would need to make it all possible? Less than a month later, I decided I wanted to go. All I could think about were the friends I would make, the clubs I would join, and all of the things I would learn about myself, my passions, and my challenges. All of that ended up being true, but there was so much more that I never anticipated.
Sometime in my first semester at Northeastern, I was walking through Snell Library Quad when I saw some students raising awareness. “9 out of 10 low-income students don’t graduate college” their signs said. I wondered, “Is that me?” But I couldn’t let it bother me. I came to Northeastern to succeed, to learn, to build a foundation for my career.
I lived in International Village with other students from across the globe, but as a Pakistani-American, I always felt either too Pakistani or too American to fit in with anyone. I studied International Affairs and Economics but few in my classes really looked like me, had a story like me, or a name like mine either. I remember thinking nobody cared about the issues that felt so close to my heart. So I joined a likeminded student group, the Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP,) and it was suspended by the University a year later.
Then on my first co-op a customer on the phone called me “Bill.” My team thought it was funny, and I let it stick. I was trying to fit in. I didn’t think I could speak up and stand my ground. I should have told them they can call me by my name. It’s “Aadil” and it means “the one who is fair or just.” And it’s not that hard to say.
I never anticipated that I would feel like I don’t belong. That part of the ups and downs of my life would be about trying to be heard and seen. But what shaped me most in my life since then was realizing my own power to shape how I belong. Shirley Chisholm once said, “if they don’t give you a seat at the table, bring a folding chair.”
SJP was reinstated a year later on free speech grounds. There was a relentless network of support across various universities, academic groups, and activist communities throughout and beyond the process. I made lifelong friends who opened my eyes to how big and intertwined the struggle for our future is. I learned that you can’t do it alone.
At my future jobs and co-ops, I shared my name and my history, proudly. I talked about my culture and my background and organized Iftar dinners for colleagues and students. I spoke up for causes that aligned with my values and the values of those around me. I made sure people could pronounce my name, and I went through the process of correcting others until they started correcting others for me. I learned that if there’s not space, you have to make the space yourself – even if that means disrupting business-as-usual.
“But there is a payoff when you can look at your environment, your job, your friends, and say that you feel a sense of belonging; you feel like you belong.”– Aadil Sulaiman, SSH’14
I spoke up in a community meeting many years ago about the disproportionate impact a new program could have on communities of color. I wanted to know whether that impact had been researched or flagged during the design stages. I could feel the eyes on me; my face was getting hot as I was speaking, and I knew that I was being seen as a “blocker” in the process. But I also knew that this was an important issue that hadn’t been given any time in previous meetings.
After the session, a woman approached me and shared that she had been feeling the same things, but she had difficulty speaking up because she always felt like the only person who cared. Emboldened, we became allies at future meetings, ensuring that issues were raised even if the other was not present, and backing each other up whenever possible. Through this, I learned that by carving out space for yourself you can empower others to do the same.
My only regret is that I didn’t push myself and push those around me sooner. It’s not always easy and it can come at an emotional or professional cost. But there is a payoff when you can look at your environment, your job, your friends, and say that you feel a sense of belonging; you feel like you belong.
I had a colleague at one of my first jobs, Brother D, who had a saying. “Good to see you,” you might say to him in the morning. “It’s great to be seen,” he would reply.
Indeed, it is.
Aadil Sulaiman, SSH’14 (he/him/his) serves as Director of Scalable Solutions at Year Up where he works to close the opportunity divide for young adults across the United States. He sits on the board of Jamaica Plain Neighborhood Development Corporation and lives in Dorchester, MA with his partner Rachel, and cat, Beast. Aadil can be reached via LinkedIn or NUSource.
January 24, 2022