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Illustration by Liene Magdalēna

Escaping Tradition and Emerging Educated

A reflection on the struggle of overcoming decades of tradition to become a first generation university student at NYU Abu Dhabi.

Nov 9, 2019

“But why university?” “What? Why not?”
“Well, no one has gone to university and we ended up just fine.” “Yes, but the times have changed. I need to and want to be able to stand on my own feet.”
“You want to study right?” “Of course! What else am I supposed to do? I want to go to university, read, work, and do what I love.”
“But, what will people say? What will everyone think if we let you go alone? If you have it in you, you can study anywhere.”
Tendrils of tradition slithered around my ankles like snakes, wrangling my aspirations, my dreams and my hopes. Mustering up all my strength, I tried to resist the gripping coils and break free. However, the more I strained against it, the tighter and faster I was bound. It wasn’t long until it dawned upon my family and I that around the cushioning of support and encouragement we had for each other, society was a network of snake-like coils that held us in its palm.
I never envisioned that my journey to university would be a battle. When the time came to apply to universities, I turned my head and looked at my family members, noticing how not one person, from either of my parents’ side, had a Bachelor’s degree. It was always the best nursery, the best primary school, the best middle school and the best highschool. Higher education, however, was labelled unnecessary.
How can a family so loving and supportive of each other be threatened by the desire to attend university? How can someone in today’s day and age not understand the importance of higher education? Why does my tradition discourage attending university, especially for girls?
I felt powerless. I dreamt of becoming independent while living in a joint-family household of 22 people. My goals for my future, years of hard work, hours of note-taking were all engulfed by the power of tradition that frowned upon my eagerness to study. I could feel myself slipping into an abyss of nothingness and irremediable grief.
Overtime, I realised that no one was fighting against me. Yes, my culture runs on the tried and tested formula of high school followed by marriage, with the women fulfilling the role of mother and housewife, and the men being absorbed into the family business. But luckily, my parents were all for breaking this stigma. They had seen me work hard all these years, and they knew that I was not only ideally suited for further education, but that it was really the best and only gift that I truly desired from them.
This is the beauty of a joint family. This battle was a struggle from both ends. Everyone from my parents, grandparents and cousins, worked together to wriggle me out of the tight grip of tradition. In favor of supporting their first born rebel’s quest for higher education, my family moved to the United Arab Emirates, where my first choice university, NYU Abu Dhabi, was located.
After months of pain and hopelessness, I smoothly slipped into a new world. The umbilical cord cut, the creepers shrugged off. I was breathing on my own.
Tradition can be a mesh of snake-like creepers, entangling you in strong tentacles the more you try to resist. But you need to let loose, relax your muscles and you will manage to wriggle out. My journey to NYUAD showcases that, though tradition can sometimes be overbearing, these norms can be broken through love and perseverance, in order to encourage the development of an individual.
And today, as a sophomore at NYUAD, I continue to be empowered by education more and more every day.
NYUAD and its liberal arts program has provided me with the ideal platform as a first generation college student, to be empowered by education. In my first year, I experimented with a plethora of unfamiliar classes, from interactive media and literature to psychology and political science. Now, these opportunities have opened up various opportunities for travel, internships and networking that have made me truly understand the power of education and its ability to change one's life.
Although my aspirations initially diverged from my family’s opinion on education, the fundamental principles by which joint families should operate — love and understanding — held us together. As a result, the other girls in my family are now gearing up for higher education. The bookshelves at home that once only housed photo albums from weddings have made space for my Psychology books, and soon enough, my graduation pictures too.
So, “What will people say?” “Well, to start with, they can call me a university graduate.”
Marium Shahzaib is a contributing writer. Email her at
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