â€œI want to help bring peace and harmony to the world,â€ says Ayesha Siddiqui, who is proud to be an American-Muslim, a Pakistani-American and a New Yorker. â€œIâ€™ve lived in the Middle East and here; I feel I can be a bridge between different faiths and cultures.â€
Coming from someone else, this could sound like a lofty dream. But Siddiqui, 34, a married mother of two sons, breaks down barriers wherever she goes. Named New York City College of Technologyâ€™s (City Tech) 2009 valedictorian, she is the first Pakistani Muslim female student to receive this honor in the history of the College.
â€œI have always worn the hijab, the head covering that Muslim women wear,â€ she explains. â€œPeople I meet have a lot of questions that I am always happy to answer, like â€˜How come you are going to school when you have a husband and children?â€™ â€˜How come you talk to male students?â€™ and â€˜Is Islam really about killing other people?â€™
â€œI stress that my religion is not narrow-minded,â€ she continues. â€œMy husband totally supports my going to college and having a career. Women can talk to men who arenâ€™t family members. And, Islam is a religion of peace; we donâ€™t condone killing.â€
When she was six years old, Siddiquiâ€™s family moved from Karachi to a small town in Oman. Non-Omanis were not permitted to attend college there, so at great financial sacrifice Siddiqui, who now lives in the Bensonhurst section of Brooklyn, was sent back to Pakistan to study. Her father had always supported her education endeavors and she never disappointed him, graduating at the top of her class in every school she ever attended.
â€œMy father would tell me that I was his life savings when Iâ€™d worry about the finances,â€ she noted. â€œHe would say that education is money well-spent.â€ Itâ€™s not surprising that Siddiqui, the oldest of five children, aspired to join the foreign service when she graduated with a bachelorâ€™s degree in political science from Karachi University in 1996. â€œI wanted to earn a masterâ€™s degree in mass communications and eventually represent my country as an ambassador,â€ she says.
While studying for Pakistanâ€™s civil service exam, she got married. Her husband, who grew up in Karachi and earned a masterâ€™s degree in medical technology at St. Johnâ€™s University in Queens, applied for her immigration. What should have taken no longer than ten months ended up taking 3-1/2 years, and she finally arrived in New York in 2000.
Before their marriage, Siddiquiâ€™s husband said he would send her to college here. By 2002, though, she was a mother of two and thought it wasnâ€™t possible. Two years later, her husband urged her to pursue her education. â€œHe convinced me to go back to college. Having been given this second opportunity to study and have a career, I wanted to do something different.â€
Siddiqui, who was on her schoolâ€™s debate team in Oman and used to sing, act and host shows there, always enjoyed drawing and making greeting cards for friends and family and posters for school events. Recalling this, she decided to get her college degree in graphic design.
â€œI loved it from the first day of class and knew it was for me,â€ she said. â€œI truly believe that effective visual communication can help resolve issues, conflicts. Graphic designers have a responsibility to society because design is a universal language — it speaks to so many people.â€
Siddiqui, worked hard and earned her associate degree at Kingsborough Community College in one year with a GPA of 3.97. She finished the requirements for her bachelorâ€™s degree in communication design at City Tech in two years and is the first advertising design and graphic arts student to be named valedictorian in City Techâ€™s history.
During the entire time, her whole family back in Pakistan — parents, inlaws, siblings — were committed to her going to college. Her mother-in-law, who is in her seventies, visited often to help out. But it was up to her and her husband to come up with a way to make it work.
â€œMy husband and I have no relatives here, so we really had to coordinate our schedules. He worked the night shift — 11:30 p.m. to 7:30 a.m. — as a technical specialist in Maimonides Medical Centerâ€™s blood bank and also had a weekend job. Thatâ€™s so weâ€™d have the money for me to go to college and he could be home for the children while I was in school,â€ she explained.
â€œI cooked meals for my family every day,â€ she adds. â€œWhen my chores were done at 9 or 9:30 at night I would start my homework, often staying up until midnight. Then I would get up at 6 a.m. and start again.â€
Her studies almost derailed this past fall when her father died in Islamabad, where her parents moved after her father retired. â€œI was so bereft, I thought of giving up,â€ she says. â€œAnd then I felt my fatherâ€™s presence and his words, â€˜I raised you to be a strong woman. Go back and focus. Find your strength.â€™ And I did.
â€œBy pulling myself out of the sadness, I am stronger than ever before. And thatâ€™s the message I want to give to graduates,â€ continues Siddiqui, who will deliver her valedictory address at City Techâ€™s June 1 commencement in the WaMu Theater at Madison Square Garden. â€œFind your strength within your weakness and remember nobody is perfect. Treat everyone with respect.â€
During an internship at the Womenâ€™s Press Collective, Siddiqui found her professional path; sheâ€™d like to be a graphic designer for non-profit organizations. â€œI learned so much there, especially how to survive with limited resources.â€ [Note: Click on http://www.ayeshadesign.com to see Siddiquiâ€™s under-construction website.]
Siddiqui, who earned a 3.98 grade point average out of a possible 4.0 at City Tech, misses phoning her father to let him know her grades, but his death made her realize even more how supportive her husband, children and mother-in-law have been.
â€œMy sons are so proud of me. When I got my only A-minus, my oldest son wanted to know what went wrong. Both of them have very high expectations of me. Sometimes, my husband would tell me not to push myself so hard. But I said no, I have to do my best.â€ And she did.