Meet Sumaya

Name: Sumaya Awad

Year: 2016

Major (s): History, Religion, Jewish Studies Concentration

Hometown: This is probably the toughest question. I’m an Arab cocktail. My mother is half Syrian, half Palestinian from Jerusalem. My father is half Palestinian (from Nablus) and half Saudi Arabian. I grew up between Amman, Jordan and the US. What does that make me? I don’t think I consider any one place my ‘hometown.’ I’m Palestinian, but the Israeli occupation bars me from returning to my land. I’m Jordanian in that a large part of my family lives in Jordan. The streets of Jordan raised me and my tongue is that of the Arab world. My thoughts are a jumble of Arabic and English. But, my mother read me Dr. Suess as a child and sang me songs from The Sound of Music. I love Mansaf and Knafeh, but always yearn for cookie dough ice cream (which I can never find in Jordan). I don’t have a ‘hometown.’ I have many. Or, none at all. ‘Home’, perhaps, is where I sleep at night. 

A lot of students decide to go abroad during their junior year, but there are some who take the opportunity to study away at another college within the states. What led you to choose the study away option?

I’m an international student so my decision to study in the United States was a decision to study abroad. To me, studying abroad is about engaging in a new community and culture, to challenge myself and my preconceived notions about a particular place. Before choosing to study away, I had in mind going to India, China or Uganda. However, I found that most programs were very restricting in that you spent much of your time with other American students within an organized program that sought to give you a particular perspective on the region you were in. I realize this is a generalization and I am sure some programs don’t fit this criticism, but the programs I had in mind did. Thus, I found other ways to study abroad without having to be within a restricted agenda. I applied to be a Gaudino fellow and fulfilled my desire to understand the Muslim communities in Hong Kong (I actually wanted to go to Xin-Jiang, but politics and my background got in the way). Over the summer I traveled to Chile to do research on the Palestinian refugee community in Santiago. To me, this is what study abroad is all about: to be thrust in an environment that is completely foreign to you, sometimes without speaking a single word of their language, and to learn to live within that community and engage in its many facets. When I found that most study abroad programs couldn’t provide me with this, I turned to other universities within the US to find a way to engage with a campus that had a larger, more diverse and active student body.

What drew you to Columbia?

Columbia was actually my backup choice. Originally, I wanted to attend UC Berkeley. I’m really interested in Islamic studies and Middle Eastern Studies. Columbia and Berkeley have extremely great Middle Eastern departments and some of the leading minds in Islamic Studies. I was very much interested in pursuing my interest in these two academic fields and thus both Columbia and Berkeley seemed like great choices. Both also had a very politically active student body which is something I yearned to be a part of. Being an activist at Williams is very difficult, particularly when the cause you advocate for is marginalized or silenced. I wanted to be part of a community that understood the importance of activism, particularly for Palestine. This type of community usually comes with a larger and more diverse student body. Both UC Berekly and Columbia had that to offer. That’s not to say I wanted to be in a place that had no opposition to my activism (in the heart of NYC, opposition to Palestine is never absent), but to be in a place where I had a community that shared my beliefs and interests, one that I could lean on when facing the opposition. Instead of having constantly to defend the reason for my activism, as was the case in Williams, I wanted to be in a community that understands my reasoning and that could help me implement it. UC Berkeley didn’t have an actual visiting student application and their admissions office was not very helpful so I ended up going to Columbia. At first, I was disappointed in having to be at Columbia, but the last few months have proven me wrong. I absolutely love it here!

That's great to hear! Are your studies at Columbia similar or in relation to those at Williams?

Yes and no. At Williams I took many classes that dealt with issues similar to those I was invested in, but not directly speaking to said issues. I would create parallels between what I was studying and what I invested myself in outside of academia. However, at Columbia, I have the chance to take classes that engage directly in these parallels. It’s so exciting to be able to learn in class what you later use in your approach to activism. I’m also engaging in interests that could not be met at Williams. I’m taking a creative writing class and a class on the history of the Soviet Union. One thing I’ve completely abandoned is Chinese. I took Chinese all through high school and during my freshman and sophomore year at Williams. At Columbia I chose to learn another language, one I’ve always been enchanted by, but never truly had the time or opportunity to learn: Farsi.

You were incredibly active in Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) at Williams. Has being at Columbia affected this involvement? 

Not at all. At Columbia I’ve been able to explore other ways of resisting the Israeli occupation. For example, I joined the Columbia Palestinian Dabke Brigade which uses Palestinian dance (Dabke) as a means of protesting the occupation through the medium of art. Being the point person of SJP at Williams was very rewarding, but it was also exhausting. I’m really enjoying being a part of a larger SJP community in which I can engage without having to be solely responsible for it. Being in the city has given me the chance to explore resistance outside of the boundaries of an institution. The Dabke team I’m a part of performs at many protests in the city. We actually just protested the Batsheva Dance Company performance at BAM in Brooklyn. Activism through art is something I’m so interested in engaging with.