Redefining the Norm: An Interview with Yussre ElBardicy

By GIRLWITHABOOK Intern, Rosie Vita

This week’s interview is with Yussre ElBardicy. Yussre recently graduated from the College of William & Mary with a degree in Math and a minor in Arabic. Yussre was born and raised in Northern Virginia, the daughter of Egyptian immigrants. At William & Mary, Yussre was involved with the Muslim Student Association, Alma Mater Productions (AMP), and Student Assembly. Recently she moved to Madison, Wisconsin to begin her first job out of college.

RV: What are you studying? This can go beyond major and minor and into broader educational interests.

YE: I’m a Math major and an Arabic minor. We go back to Egypt a lot. The past couple trips I’ve gone alone. My mom has been there for a bit working. So when I was there in 2013 that was when Egypt had its big coup. I got really emotionally invested in that. I mean I was always kind of following Middle Eastern politics, but that made me really start following it. I started to look for ways that I could combine politics but also math. That kind of got me interested in social sciences. I joined the SNAPP (Social Networks and Political Psychology) lab [at William & Mary] and I did a summer research project on it and almost did an honors thesis on it. I’m very interested in the trajectory Egypt has taken and I’ve also followed Syria more closely as well.

RV: How do you think having two college-educated parents has affected you?

YE: Education was always a priority growing up. It was the thing that I was the most proud of growing up because it was the thing I got the most affirmation from. Not just grades, but for them, it was the thing that they were most proud of me for. Doing well in school and me loving reading, they were like ‘that’s awesome!’

RV: How has being a Muslim affected you views on education? How has your religion, and growing up in the current political climate, had an affect on the way you see your role in education?

YE: There’s this saying of the Prophet that says “Seek knowledge even if it takes you as far as China.” The religion says that you need to be educated, and so from a religious perspective it is really important. My dad would always tell me that it’s not just religious education that you need, but [you also need] knowledge of the sciences and knowledge of the faith, you can’t really have one without the other. It never like I had to balance the two, they went hand in hand.

In terms of the current political climate, sometimes it feels like Muslims have to prove themselves, which sucks. We had this conversation in MSA, how anytime anything happens, we all get phone calls from our parents where [they say] “okay, now lay low, don’t say anything, you don’t want anyone to think that you were acting poorly, etc. etc. try not to talk about anything, just keep your head low and it’ll blow over.” But we say we can’t not talk about this. Luckily my parents know I just don’t know how to shut up. I’m always discussing things. But on the other hand, [my friend] says that his dad says “don’t talk about anything, keep your head down, study hard and get out of there.” There’s this pressure to study hard, work hard, and fulfill this American Dream, and that’s your way of proving yourself, but at the end of the day I’m getting my education for myself, not for anyone else.

RV: You’re very involved on campus. Why has that been important to you?

YE: It makes me feel like I’m actually doing something important. Especially as a math major, there’s only so much I can really do for society. But there is a sense of a need to do something for others. I really think that with anything you’re trying to do you need to know the problem you’re trying to address, what your role is in it, what your limitation are given your background or privilege, and the only way you can really know all that is to be educated. Especially seeing my extended family in Egypt not being afforded the same privileges that I am, sometimes it’s a sense of ‘”Well why me? Why were my parents the ones that ended up moving to the states?’ What am I going to do to give back in some sense?

RV: As a girl in the education system in Egypt, do you think your prospects would have been different than they are in America?

YE: Education is pretty equal access to men and women. Where the disadvantage to women comes in is the general issue of harassment, which comes all the time on the streets, but also from professors and teachers. I get that here in a very different regard than I would in Egypt. I went through all of high school liking math, and I mostly had female math teachers, but then William & Mary is only where I saw the intersectionality of sexism and xenophobia to women in STEM.

RV: Can you talk more about that?

YE: Yeah, so honestly, high school was great for math. I had great math teachers; I’m still in contact with two of them. I never was really aware of the “math is for men” mindset that other people have. And then I got here, with mostly male professors, which is fine, I didn’t really think twice about it. Until, well I have a couple of examples. Looking back at freshman year, I raised my hand a lot in class. And then by sophomore year, I had professors who made me less sure of myself. There was this one instance where this guy in my class kept trying to answer this question, and he kept saying it wrong. The more he said the wrong answer, the more I was sure that I was right. So I finally raised my hand and I said it, and it was the right answer. And the guy was like “oh yeah I was going to say that next.” And the professor said “haha [sic] the girl beat you.” He knows my name. I’d been to his office. He knows my name. He’d pass back papers, he knows me name, and yet I was just “the girl.”

And then another instance, I had a professor and I was sitting in his office. We were talking for a while, and the conversation was fine; we were talking about politics and math. It felt like a great conversation. And then he said, “So you’ve been in the United States for a while.” And I was like, “Yeah, I was born and raised here.” And he said, “Yeah you almost sound like an ordinary average American.” And I said, “Well what doesn’t make me ordinary or average?” And he just laughed, and said, “Oh, it’s the shoes.” I was wearing regular boots.  

I’ve had some really great math professors, but those instances are going to stay with me.

RV: Does that affect your self-confidence within your major?

YE: Yes. I never really though it would. I considered myself so resilient, but it does eat away at you, especially when someone is constantly questioning your identity and you feel like you have to prove something. I just want to focus on school for once, not whether or not I’m American.

RV: Do you ever feel pressures that you have to represent women or Muslims, and that if you fail you’re somehow letting others down?

YE: Luckily there were always other women in the class, so I’m not alone, but in terms of being a Muslim I kind of represent the community. I know I don’t have to, but sometimes I can’t shake away the feelings. So there is pressure. But sometimes it’s the opposite. I have a bunch of nieces and nephews, and I’ll ask them, “What’s your favorite subject?” and if they say science or math, I’m [very excited]. I was babysitting once and I was like, “Let’s learn derivatives!” They could do a couple!

RV: You’ve mentioned intersectionality of sexism and xenophobia. What, if any, xenophobia have you experienced?

YE: There are always a few micro-aggressions. A lot of it hasn’t been to my face. I mostly feel safe on campus. Sometimes if I’m walking around Williamsburg I start getting looks, outside of the campus community. One of my good friends is also a Muslim hijabi, and she saw a car with a “Make America Great Again” sticker, and she said she wanted to run.

There was stuff in high school, although high school wasn’t really that bad. I started wearing scarves freshman year of high school. There was a guy who knew why I was wearing it; we live in a diverse area. He knows I’m a Muslim. He looked at me with a smug face and asked, “So do you have cancer or something?” It’s these things where I don’t know if you’re trying to give me an insult or just make me uncomfortable. I really haven’t had it bad compared to other people at all. It’s scary when I see people I know having horrible things done to them.

RV: You mentioned when things happen politically involving Muslims, and your parents call and tell you to keep you head low. Do you ever feel scared being a Muslim woman, and a publicly Muslim woman as your wear a hijab?

YE: On campus not so much. Sometimes I won’t go to the grocery store at night, if it’s a day or two after something has happened. Your guard is up. Or you have the feeling that you need to smile at everyone to prove you’re not a bigger threat. I’m not as scared as my parents are. Obviously my parents are going to be more scared for me than I am for myself. I know that here I’m in a much safer place than if I were in the Deep South.

RV: What kind of responses have you had as a part of the Muslim Student Association?

YE: One thing that really shook me in my time here was the Chapel Hill Shooting. We held a vigil for that, but some people didn’t feel comfortable going. A lot of times you’ll hear the notion of don’t congregate; you’re a big target.

One really awesome thing about William & Mary, that I’ve noticed just from visiting other schools, is that in general we have a culture of organizations working together. The MSA and black activists on campus have worked together. We have black Muslims too, and realizing the intersectionality of the struggles, that we don’t exist in a vacuum. We went to this inter-MSA [conference] of Virginia MSAs. We realized that they all kind of just served themselves, whereas our events are for the larger campus, almost more in terms of education. It’s not that we take super political stances, but more so that we’re not passive.

RV: What are your hopes for the future?

YE: I used to somewhat naively hope that the more Muslims people meet, the more they’ll realize that we’re just like everyone else and that’ll it’ll dissipate. There was one student who I kind of considered a friend. I knew he was conservative but I didn’t think that had any affect on how he felt about me. Then he wrote this article that basically had me sobbing. Even within it there was a headline that said “a culture antithetical to American values.” It was so obviously written from an orientalist standpoint, where when he was saying things I couldn’t tell if he was talking about Muslims, or Syrians specifically, or Arabs. Those are three overlapping groups, but they’re not the same by any means. You have Syrians who are not Muslims, or Arabs who are not Muslims, or Muslims who are not Arabs, or Syrians who are not Arabs or Muslims. It blew my mind that somebody I knew could have written that. And even in the comments, because he posted the article on Facebook, somebody asked, “So do you feel threatened?” and he said, “No, not by those who I surround myself with, but if thousands of migrants were resettled near me, then yes I would feel threatened.” So I think, well great, I don’t threaten you. So even though you’ve met me and countless other Muslims, you’re going to see me as the outlier, and not the norm, and extend that to the larger community. People just don’t get it. His article is so full of things that just weren’t true. [He had] a view of the Middle East as this ultra conservative place. There was a quote that said, “Walk around scantily clad in the Middle East and you’re basically inviting sex.” I think, have you been to Egypt? Lebanon? Half of these countries where that’s not true. Yes, harassment happens, but that’s not a result of the religion, and it happens in America too.

RV: What are the problems you see within the American education system? Girls’ education? What do you think we as a society can do to improve?

YE: I think that equal opportunity is so important. I think it’s a lot better than other places, but it’s definitely not equal. I know I’m privileged as person living in America instead of Egypt, but even looking at a person who lives in Fairfax County versus other parts of Virginia, I was afforded so many privileges. I didn’t pay for AP tests, my school was so well resourced, and I never had to worry about a wall crumbling down or sharing a classroom with fifty students. I had specialized attention. I had a very safe education environment, which not everyone has. I took an American history class this semester, and we talked about education and urban education. I didn’t even realize all of these things, even the lunches people get. If you can’t get a decent meal, how are you supposed to focus?

In terms of women specifically, I had a great K-12 experience, where I didn’t feel different as a girl. At the same time, I think there’s probably a lot of stuff I didn’t notice. I think the conditioning is still somewhat there. That’s why I’m always encouraging my nieces to [think that] math is awesome! I think it’s important to make it clear that you can do whatever you want. That’s another thing I’ve noticed. Women can be math teachers, but then academia is almost reserved for men. We just don’t see as many [women].

RV: What do you think we can do to change that?

YE: It needs to be a culture shift. It was really great for me to have really supportive teachers K-12, and if I hadn’t I don’t know if I’d be a math major. There needs to be that support [in the classroom] and at home, too. My parents never differentiated between me, my sister, and my brothers in terms of what was the right thing to go into for our education.

Thank you to Yussre for being interviewed for this post. Check back in next Tuesday for another topic on girls’ education in the United States!

Yussre ElBardicy