Do not let other’s negativity impact you. When I was in my hometown, I was never “American enough” and when I was at Berkeley around Pakistani peers, I never was “Pakistani enough.” I know what I am even if others can’t box me in. Keep your faith in yourself alive.
Do not forget who you are and where you came from. When I was eight years old, I was speaking Urdu on the school bus and the bus driver said “we only speak English here.” That sentiment stayed with me to the point where I exclusively speak Urdu to my children. Your culture is your language and your roots. You can’t forget this because that identity is what makes you American.
Is the American Dream still alive? If you speak to many of the immigrants we spoke to, who came to this country with nothing but grit, resilience, and a dream, they will tell you that it certainly is still alive.
As a part of our series about immigrant success stories, I had the pleasure of interviewing of Dr. Sana Shaikh.
Born in Pakistan and raised in California, Dr. Shaikh now calls Connecticut home. An expert in organizational theory and behavior, she completed her dissertation on the intersection of racial identity and relationships in developing culturally responsive classrooms. She holds two bachelor’s from the University of California, Berkeley in Political Science and Near Eastern Studies — Islamic Civilizations with a minor in Global Poverty and Practice. She has two masters, one in Urban Studies from Johns Hopkins and one in Social Policy and Management from Brandeis University. Her PhD is in Social Policy and Management from the Heller School of Social Policy and Management. She is passionate about anti-racism and equity and is completing her certification for Diversity and Inclusion through eCornell.
Dr. Shaikh has over ten years of experience working in education policy, research and program management and operations. She was a 2011 Teach for America corps member where she taught high school in east Baltimore for two years. She has served within staff as a Manager, Teacher Leadership Development and continued to provide contract support in various capacities to the admissions and operations team. At Brandeis University, she worked in higher education as an Assistant Area Coordinator, writing tutor and a teaching facilitator for the Leader Scholar Community, a course geared for high-achieving freshman students.
Dr. Shaikh has received numerous fellowships throughout her professional career. She was a fellow at the Aspen Institute, the Harvard Kennedy School Rappaport Institute for Greater Boston, Achievement First, Urban Leaders Fellowship, Leadership for Educational Equity and more recently, serves as an InSPIRE fellow through the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.
She is currently the Director of School Operations in Springfield Public Schools and 50Can National Voices Fellow. She is the founder of her diversity and equity company called TimeED — Taking Initiative, Making Equity in Education.
Her life’s biggest accomplishment is being a wife and mother. She is mother to twin 2.5-year-olds, Amal & Amin, who are smart, articulate and empathetic beings. Her husband, Dr. Rayhan Shaikh, is a grounding force in her life and works for Pfizer.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Can you tell us the story of how you grew up?
I am a product of two different worlds. I grew up in Lahore, Pakistan — was born there and stayed there until I was around 7 years old. At seven, my parents and extended family moved to Roseville, California. My dad was an engineer by training and had completed his engineering training at University of California, Davis before coming to Pakistan to marry my mom.
My childhood was privileged and sheltered in many ways. I was a bookworm, an overachiever. Oldest of three siblings, I spent hours pouring over books because they allowed me to see the world through the lens of others. They were also an escape for me in many ways. I grew up in the affluent suburbs of Northern California and I was one of the few non-white students in my classroom and school. I was tall, wore glasses, with a long braid, and wore pants in the hottest of Sacramento days — I was definitely different. In high school, I found myself by being the Captain of the Speech and Debate and Student Body Vice President in Student Government. These two activities were really the anchor of who I am as a person. Debate gave me the power of voice and Student Government gave me the confidence to navigate relationships.
Was there a particular trigger point that made you emigrate to the US? Can you tell us the story?
We were well-off in Pakistan. If we owned the properties that we sold to emigrate to the United States, they would be worth in the millions. My dad’s side of the family were entrepreneurial and in real estate and my mom’s side of the family were academics. My maternal grandmother was a professor in sociology at a prominent university in Pakistan. Despite the relative financial comfort, violence was ubiquitous. The trigger point of leaving the United States was when we realized that our neighbor had died through a suicide bombing. We already were thinking of moving to the United States but that really expedited the process. I think also for my father, he was in a family of all women — he had a wife and two small girls to provide for. Pakistan does not provide many opportunities for women to forge independence in their career and that reality plus the seemingly never-ending violence was the breaking point.
Can you tell us the story of how you came to the USA? What was that experience like?
I remember getting on a plane and coming to California. I was younger then, so everything seemed like an adventure. We moved to America during the holiday season so when we were routed through Europe, I just remember seeing the beautiful holiday lights and Christmas trees. I think subconsciously, I get so joyful during the holidays because of how I felt when we landed in the US — just free. Like I could do and be anything.
Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped make the move more manageable? Can you share a story?
I did not have many friends when I was growing up. The Pakistani-American community is all about pretenses and we were new immigrants and did not have ties to the country 30 years ago. I also did not speak English well and was generally awkward. I did not really know how to navigate the move culturally and it took me until high school so not feel so out of place. We were moving from one of the most socially conservative countries to a place where everyone was all-American as they come.
I am most grateful to my Speech and Debate Coach, Mrs. Rita Prichard. She was my hero. She was white and she was wonderful. She had high expectations for me, believed in me, raised my sense of self-worth, and was my village. She has these deep blue eyes and most beautiful smile that lights up her face. She saw potential in me when I did not see it in myself. She made me debate captain when I was a sophomore in high school. The year prior, I had lost more debates than I had won. I still do not why she made me captain. Our team was high-performing and was heavily male-dominated so the prospect of gawky, English Language Learner as the debate captain did not sit well with many. She did not care. Her love for teaching, her love for her students, and coaching was what she cared about. I spent hours practicing my speaking with her. She used to call me her adopted daughter and that really resonated with me. My senior year, I won Speaker of the Year, the best in the whole league. I’ve gotten many academic and professional accolades, but that award means so much to me. And I owe all my growth to her.
So how are things going today?
I feel really privileged. I am done with school after being a student for 24 years. And I am fighting for what I am most passionate about: educational equity.
It was difficult for me growing up but I was also immensely privileged in many ways. I look at students who are Black or Latinx with the compounded traumas and institutional injustices they face and their resilience is what keeps me at my work. We need more equitable policies in place that provide all students the opportunity to chase their dreams.
After finishing my doctorate, I became an administrator at a Title 1 high school in Springfield, Massachusetts. This past year, with COVID, the difficulties being in educator have been so bitterly partisan and traumatic. Operations has been a journey of its own as we constantly oscillate between remote, hybrid, and in person learning.
I am so heartened by those that keep fighting for their beliefs in making the educational system a more equitable place. I am a mother to 2.5 year old twins and I always wonder: what do I need to do to make the school a place that I would send my own children? These are the questions that keep me up at night and keep me motivated to continue working in education and public policy.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
I have dedicated my life to education, and I am so passionate about the work that I do. I think the core of bringing goodness in the world is bringing your vulnerabilities, stories, and authenticity to spaces that are not meant for you. You must keep being resilient despite the messiness and continue seeing the glass half full even when you face obstacles. Accepting that as your truth is so important in education because kids are our future and we need to do the best to give them hope and voice to be the best that they can be.
You have first hand experience with the US immigration system. If you had the power, which three things would you suggest to improve the system?
My dad had his American passport when I was born so I never had to endure the length that it takes to become an American citizen. I think that streamlining the system is so important so that families can be together and not have to navigate it for years, even decades at a time. I would also say that the immigration system is complicated. I cannot imagine having to learn it as an adult, without financial resources, or command of the English language. We need to make the system less bureaucratic, and easier to navigate. We also need to talk about “the system” with more nuance. The journey of immigrants is not simply about that journey. Everyone brings their joys, heartaches, hopes, and dreams to this country. We need to acknowledge our shared humanity instead of talking about who is more “deserving” or “less deserving” to be here.
Can you share “5 keys to achieving the American dream” that others can learn from you? Please share a story or example for each.
- Believe in yourself. I spent years learning how to speak English well and had to lose countless competitions to grow as a communicator. My faith in my ability kept me going.
- Work harder than everyone else. Since I was a child, I have never not taken an opportunity. I have worked over summers, done unpaid internships, contract work, all while balancing school. When I was expecting my twins, I used to drive around the state of Connecticut conducting research for my PhD, all while working part-time and doing contract work. I had 18 hour days some days. Keep going.
- Do not let other’s negativity impact you. When I was in my hometown, I was never “American enough” and when I was at Berkeley around Pakistani peers, I never was “Pakistani enough.” I know what I am even if others can’t box me in. Keep your faith in yourself alive.
- Do not forget who you are and where you came from. When I was eight years old, I was speaking Urdu on the school bus and the bus driver said “we only speak English here.” That sentiment stayed with me to the point where I exclusively speak Urdu to my children. Your culture is your language and your roots. You can’t forget this because that identity is what makes you American.
- Forgive yourself for your mistakes. In my journey to become my best self, I found friends that were not truly friends. All these experiences helped me identify who is in my circle and pushed me to become more adept at reading people and their personalities.
We know that the US needs improvement. But are there 3 things that make you optimistic about the US’s future?
I truly believe that our children are our future and being in education has deepened that perspective even more. My time in Teach for America has shown me that we have many qualified, passionate leaders out there who are hungry for change and driven for results. That makes me hopeful.
I am heartened by the conversations that are happening about racial equity in this country. Policy-wise, we have so much work to do to undo historical hurt, but the readiness to engage in these conversations is inspiring.
I am excited about our innovations in biotechnology, specifically when it comes to the development of the Pfizer vaccine, for example. It has been a difficult several months for many and though we may not return to what we perceived as “normalcy,” it’s going to feel so good to hug our loved ones without fear.
We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂
Kamala Harris is my Shero. She was Attorney General when I was at UC Berkeley and I saw firsthand how she developed community and was her authentic self. As a daughter of immigrants and South Asian, she deserves so much love and gratitude for breaking the glass ceiling for people that look like me and for my children — and generations to follow.
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This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!