Local View: Searching for self in a diverse world
The University of Minnesota Duluth is committed to diversity among students, staff and faculty as a means of preparing our students for a global workplace. I recently served on the Multicultural and Diversity Committee in the Swenson College of Science and Engineering, which reminded me of the role of diversity in my own upbringing. Without diverse experiences, I would have been a farmer in a village somewhere in the Egyptian Nile Delta.
As a young boy, I consistently looked outward for role models, whether it was people I admired, those with different life experiences, or characters in movies or books.
Before the 1952 military coup against King Farouk of Egypt, only one family owned all the farmland in my village. The rest of the farmers, my father and grandfather included, worked as laborers for menial wages. My two older sisters missed out on school despite the availability of free education because they had to work to support our family. I later learned my sisters insisted I attend school as a precondition for their support.
Our village elementary school was housed in a former palace, rented from an aristocratic family. My teachers came from neighboring small towns, and they biked daily to the school because there was no public transportation to the village at the time. While farmers taught me the virtue of hard work and simplicity in life, I admired the sophistication of my teachers, who opened my eyes to different life paths beyond the boundaries of my village.
During my junior high and high school years, I began to meet students from affluent families. I was an introverted student with a keen interest in social observation as a means of self-discovery. I looked up to the top students in my classes and made sure not to be far behind in my academic standing. I also kept an eye on how they carried themselves, communicated with others and even how they dressed. During that time I also became an avid reader of foreign literature that represented a wonderful window into a whole new world that I could only dream about. In high school, I was particularly inspired by a French-educated biology teacher who embodied the essence of an intellectual. While I was not very fond of biology then, I never missed a class because of my teacher. In college, I worked with an England-
educated professor who motivated me with her personality and work ethics. She also was instrumental in sending me abroad for graduate school.
While working during high school and college to support myself, I was exposed to a different slice of the society in the nearby city of Tanta. I worked in a restaurant that was managed by a young father of two who inherited the family restaurant to sustain his extended family. He was a free-spirited young man who had had dreams of his own but, unfortunately, abused drugs. One summer night, in a moment of despair, he splashed gasoline over his body and tried to set himself on fire before we stopped him. Despite that, he had a large impact on me personally and strengthened my belief in humanity at its best. He was extremely kind, generous and protective of me, a young farm boy as innocent as they come. Often his family would send me home-cooked meals to make sure I had a balanced diet away from my own family.
During that time, I also was exposed to a wide range of others: from the woman at the street corner selling herbs to raise her family to the old custodian who allowed me to sleep on the second floor of the neighborhood mosque and to the restaurant customers from all walks of life. These people became my adopted family away from home and presented me with numerous case studies in human nature.
After graduating college, I moved to the United States to earn a doctorate degree from the California Institute of Technology. I entered a whole new world to discover with a multitude of exciting opportunities.
Of course, our immediate families provide the basic foundations of who we are as individuals, but everything else outside our homes is also important in shaping our personality and making us unique. Regardless of our diversity — whether it is our skin colors, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation or economic and cultural background — we all have something to teach each other and to contribute to this great nation of ours. This is why diversity in our educational system, from elementary schools to colleges, is critical for preparing our students to function in a global marketplace, facilitate their own self-discovery, and measure their own capabilities against others.
Ahmed Heikal is a professor of chemistry and biochemistry at the University of Minnesota Duluth.