“She’s going to be a doctor,” my dad would say to anyone and everyone, speaking for me. “She’s starting Stanford this year, and then it’s medical school in four years.” Words swollen with pride, he would call me “Dr. Rizkalla” more often than he would call me Amanda.
After I got into Stanford in December, my friends, too, swooned at the idea of me attending medical school one day. They would send me detailed accounts of their symptoms when they were sick, even pictures of their rashes, and ask me what steps they should take to get better. And they weren’t joking. I would gently remind them that I wasn’t a doctor yet, and that I had no medical training whatsoever. But more often than that, people would send me drafts of their essays. Broken pieces of writing, outlines that needed a little love — I would take them and, side by side with the author, try to make them into the cohesive, striking essays they always had the potential to be. After a while I started to get the hint that maybe writing didn’t have to just be a hobby for me – that although I would embrace everything Stanford had to offer with open arms, I could still hold hands with English.
Three weeks into Stanford, I decided I wanted to discuss this with someone. After a few email exchanges, I settled on a time and place to meet with someone more knowledgeable, someone who knew how to answer that dreaded “So what can you actually do with an English major?” Pulitzer Prize winner, National Endowment for the Arts Fellow, and professor of my Thinking Matters class Adam Johnson sat across from me. We sat on leather chairs in the warmth of his office, where a large wooden bookshelf spanned the entirety of one of the walls, colorful books arranged with care to fit every empty space. Never in my life had I seen so many books in one room, other than in a library.
Small talk over with, he asked me why I wanted to meet with him.
“I want your job,” I told him, surprising both him and myself. “Mainly because I think I want to major in English,” I added.
He nodded, waiting for me to continue.
“I want to major in English,” I said, “but I can’t.”
He tilted his gaze sideways to me, “well, why not?”
I paused to gather my thoughts. I wanted to tell him I am from a place where, more than once, neighbors asked me why I’m going to college instead of where I’m going to college. I wanted to explain that my dad did not know what Stanford was until I sat him down, and many Google images later, tried to explain that there are more colleges out there than USC and UCLA, the two closest schools to home. How do I explain that it’s different for me, for other first-generation and/or low-income students? That maybe, socioeconomic class can influence which classes you take, what majors you lean toward? During NSO, people would ask the same two questions: “Where are you from?” and “What do you want to major in?” It took me a while to realize that one cascaded into the other; that where you are from, your background, can influence what you want to study. Or at least what you say you want to study.
Patiently, he listened, and carefully, he responded. He asked what my parents would think if I told them about my plans. “But you already know how to write,” I could hear them say. “You don’t need to go to school for that. You need to be practical.” But I am the one who got into Stanford, not my parents.
I have left the interaction with Adam certain that I want to minor in creative writing. Only one quarter into Stanford, I have a precious gift – I have time and I have earned my right to use it to explore. People from under-resourced backgrounds – myself included – need to come to terms with the fact that a degree in engineering will not necessarily lead to a higher degree of satisfaction in life, and that the pre-med path is not a guaranteed path to happiness. With agency and now with more confidence, I can say that I am not pursuing either track. Yes, I am first-generation. Yes, I am low income. Yes, I lack a safety net to fall back on. And wholeheartedly, unapologetically, I choose passion over practicality.
Contact Amanda Rizkalla at amariz ‘at’ stanford.edu.