Student Story: Misha Khan | Teachers College Columbia University

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Student Story: Misha Khan Finds Her Story

Misha Khan, a student in her first semester in the English Education M.A. leading to Initial Certification program, allowed herself to struggle and search for acceptance before she enrolled as a student at Teachers College.

For the first time in her four years as an undergraduate at Long Island University, Brooklyn, Misha took an elective course in the English Department. The course, “Young Adult Fiction”, was taught by an Indian female Associate Professor of English, Srividhya Swaminathan, the first South Asian teacher Misha had ever had. Professor Swaminathan became a mentor to her, and over time, encouraged her to follow her dreams to be a teacher and to accept the struggles that may come with it.

On a particularly dark day, when Misha went to her professor in tears, grappling with how to tell her parents about her new career goal, Professor Swaminathan gave her the encouragement she needed to hear. “Every single book that we’ve read in class, the protagonist had to go through so many problems internally that [made them] have a story worth telling. You are that person. You have to tell that story, you have to be that change,” she said. That night, Misha told her parents.

In the fall of 2016, Misha arrived in one of the courtyards at Columbia University to tell me about her story. With a bright blue and white hijab adorning her head and neck and matching royal blue cardigan, Misha was striking. She was clearly the heroine of this story.

Misha was born and raised in Long Island, NY, after her parents emigrated to the U.S. from Pakistan. One of four children, her parents had high hopes for Misha, especially when she attended LIU Brooklyn as a pre-pharmacy major. “In my culture, specifically being South Asian-Middle Eastern, we’re expected to be in the medical field, and that’s the only option. Anything besides that is frowned upon,” said Misha, whose mother is also a pharmacist. “I wanted to do something that would bring honor to my family.”

In her senior year of college, on the cusp of graduating, Misha began to feel more apprehensive of her path. “It just wasn’t me. I love the sciences a lot, but I didn’t see myself doing it [for a living],” she said.  

“If you’re the luckiest person in the world, you’ll have that one class or that one professor that literally changes your life. That’s exactly what happened to me,” said Misha of Professor Swaminathan. She admired everything about her, including her choice to enter academia. Moreover, she fell in love with the professor’s class, which transported her back to being a child who spent all of her free time reading with her friends in the library. As time passed, Misha explained she no longer had time for reading and forgot about it, but her “Young Adult Fiction” course stirred up an old passion. “That connection I had in that class – I know it sounds corny, but this is what I want to do for the rest of my life. This is it,” she remembers thinking.

Misha also had a weekend job as a kindergarten teacher at her local mosque, which she loved, but considered it a hobby, not a career. For Misha, literature and teaching brought more satisfaction than any career could in the medical field.

Upon realizing the depth of her desire to go into teaching, Misha realized that the decision to abandon her career as a pharmacist would not only affect her on an internal level, but also had the potential to hurt the people dearest to her heart, her family. Misha’s family, with whom she had always been very close, became distant. Misha needed them to be strong for her, though, as she was feeling unsure about her next steps. She felt she was not only following her dream for her own sake, but could inspire others in her culture to follow their dreams as well. “They didn’t know how to process it. It was hard for them,” she said.

The distance grew further when Misha and her relatives gathered for a family wedding. One of her father’s friends asked how her pharmacy career was going. Misha told him that she was pursuing the education field, to which he responded, “Oh. How does it feel to be a disappointment to your parents?” Misha left the wedding immediately and spent the night crying.

Misha felt then that she could only rely on Professor Swaminathan. With the help of her mentor, she submitted her applications to three graduate schools of education, Teachers College included.

Later that year, Misha went on umrah, or religious pilgrimage, with her family. Once in every Muslim’s life, Misha explained, they should go to Kaaba, Islam’s most sacred mosque, in Mecca, Saudi Arabia. “I prayed so hard that whatever was meant to happen in my future for there to be some sign. When I came home from that trip, I just felt peace in my heart. I felt so calm and confident about my decision to go into teaching. That was all I needed,” she said.

After their umrah, she told her father that it was her mission from God to become a teacher. He asked her if it made her happy. She replied that it did, and he said he would support her.

She remembers the day she got her acceptance letter from TC. After having already received a rejection letter from one of the other graduate schools, she waited until the very end of the night to open it. She got into her car expecting another rejection, but received the opposite. With the good news in front of her and her parents’ blessing on her side, Misha recalls bursting into tears and running to her house where she met her mother, who assumed something terrible had happened. But they were tears of joy. “That was the beginning,” she said.

Misha had applied to Teachers College in hopes that its rigor and reputation would bring honor to her family, along with personal reasons. “I knew that Teachers College would give me the tools that I needed to change lives,” she said. “To have that impact on a student that my professor had on me.”

The semester she began at Teachers College, Misha started wearing her hijab for the first time. “So many great things were happening in my life and wearing the hijab was something I always wanted to do, I just didn’t know when.” Misha had personally never had a South Asian or Middle Eastern teacher growing up, not to mention one who wore a scarf, but now with the support of her mentor and, finally, her parents, she hopes to be an example for students like herself.

Misha has overcome many hurdles to get to Teachers College, but feels the most rewarding aspect so far is serving as an inspiration to others from her culture. “I’m so grateful for the opportunity to have people be inspired by my story,” she said.

At Teachers College, Misha finds the courses, faculty and her peers refreshing and motivating. “At TC, no one in the room is competing against each other,” she said. She has already begun implementing many of the pedagogical skills learned in her first semester into her student teaching at Herricks High School on Long Island, including modeling by example, listening to her students’ needs, and encouraging participation.

She carries a full course load there, teaching 9th Grade English, 11th Grade Advanced Placement English, a public speaking course, and an Excel course for struggling students. “Student teaching feels like home,” Misha said, noting the diversity and welcoming environment of the English Department. After only a few months of teaching, Misha expressed that she hoped to teach at Herricks one day, perhaps soon after she graduates in Summer 2017. 

“The purpose of young adult literature is so adolescents can relate to it. I feel like through discussions you have that power for students to relate to it, to have thought provoking conversations, and to think critically.” Misha began teaching high school-aged students at the weekend school where she taught kindergarten for four years as well. Her experience there has also changed. “I walk into the classroom proud of my skin, I want you to be proud of your skin, too,” she said of her attitude toward her students. Misha came into adolescence in the wake of 9/11, when she didn’t want anyone to know she was a Muslim. Now, she promotes Muslim identity among her students and asks them to fight misconceptions.

With only this small chapter of Misha’s story soon coming to a close, who knows how many other countless protagonists Misha will inspire?

Picture of Nori KatoNori Kato is a Staff Writer and Social Media Coordinator for the Department of Arts and Humanities. She is also a graduate of the International Educational Development program at Teachers College.


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