Celebrating a dream: First-class student, nearly calling it quit

by Arita Soenarjono

Ayesha Siddiqui and family

Ayesha Siddiqui and family

Ayesha Siddiqui First Pakistani Muslim Valedictorian

It was a dream, years in the making; so precious, she held on to near and dear, from  homelands across a continent in the Middle East to adopted neighborhood in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn.

It was “unapproachable and distant” at time.  Yet by June first, through constant prayers, courage and perseverance, Ayesha Siddiqui who is a 34 year-old Pakistani Muslim, finally claimed her dream and was awarded gold medal in honor of her distinguished academic records.

“These magnificent accomplishments would not have been possible without the blessings of our supreme creator, the supports of families, friends and encouragements of our professors, faculties and administration,” she said.  “[And] I stand before you today, telling you that dreams do come true.”

That Monday morning, the Wamu Theater at Madison Square Garden was swarmed in black ropes and caps where Ms. Siddiqui shared “a glorious day” delivering her valedictory address for New York City College of Technology 69th Annual Commencement Ceremony.  Approximately 1,800 graduating class of 2009 along with loved ones cheered and applauded in their approval, as City Tech President Russell K. Hotzier recognized the feature speaker to be the first advertising design and graphic arts student in school’s history to earn 3.98 Grade Point Average out of a perfect 4.0.

In between her soft-spoken words, the petite married mother with two young boys dedicated her Bachelor of Technology Degree in Communication Design to “beloved father, who suddenly passed away” in November 2008.

Ayesha Siddiqui delivers valedictory address (photo courtesy Alberto Vargas of City Tech)

Ayesha Siddiqui delivers valedictory address (photo courtesy Alberto Vargas of City Tech)

“It was the greatest loss of my life,” Ms. Siddiqui said; her tears began; her voice trembled with emotion. “But my father’s greatest wish was for me to believe in myself and to see me succeed in life.”

The confidence and eagerness to discover new ideas set Ms. Siddiqui to pursue higher education, because knowledge is life’s pre-requisite she said, quoting President Obama. She also gained inspirations from her surrounding, particularly Judith Wilde who is former professor at Kingsborough Community College in Brooklyn, where she obtained Associates Degree in Graphic and Illustration with a GPA of 3.975.

At City Tech, Ms. Siddiqui honed her artistic talent to create illustrations, branding and typography, including the Arabian Tales typeface which won a Presidential Award.  She found group interactions beneficial in preparing a profession in graphic design.

“The respect I had for everyone around me, for their individuality, diversity enabled me to develop patience and understanding,” she said.  “[It] developed my leadership skill.”

In her speech, Ms. Siddiqui encouraged fellow graduates to work hard despite all odds.  The future generation will live a prosperous and tranquil life when works on humanity and global peace take priority.  She cited the teachings of Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) on equality, because in God’s eyes people are equal regardless of race or skin color:

Ayesha Siddiqui delivers valedictorian address (photo courtesy of Alberto Vargas of City Tech)

Ayesha Siddiqui delivers valedictorian address (photo courtesy of Alberto Vargas of City Tech)

“An Arab has no superiority over a non Arab, nor a non Arab has superiority over an Arab; also a white has no superiority over a black, nor does a black have any superiority over a white – except by piety and good action.”

Ms. Siddiqui believes the message, which the Prophet shared during his last sermon over 1,400 years ago in the Uranah valley of Mount Arafat, illustrates the importance of solidarity in closing the gap between individual differences.  It also resonates in today’s word, where opportunities abound for everyone to reach higher goals in life.  And, as Barack Obama was able to become the first African American president in US history, she too, became the first female Pakistani Muslim valedictorian.

“I was telling my mother in-law, imagine if he was here today,” said Ms. Siddiqui’s husband, Mr. Muhammed Anwar, of the late father in-law.  “He’d be jumping around; the kind of person he was.  So Allah blesses his soul.”

To Ayesha Siddiqui, life is a learning process filled with “roller coaster ride but a ride worth taking.”  She shaped a desire of becoming ambassador to world peace by translating her passion to draw into messages of tolerance, equality, diversity and acceptance.  She encountered unfamiliar territories along the way, from grasping the industry concept without prior knowledge to answering questions regarding her faith.

“Designs make certain taboo which people have that designers might have to look a certain way,” she said, smiling. Her black hijab framed her youthful face.  “I don’t think so.  If I’m good; if I’m creative; if I work hard, I’ll make a mark.”

But with current economic downturn, what is the prospect of landing a job?  Survey from the National Association of Colleges and Employers indicates that only 20% of the 2009 college graduates had a job lined up prior to graduation; a sharp decline compared to 51% in 2007.

“My chance is 50-50,” said Natasha Marcene, fellow graduate and international student from Trinidad.  “People are getting laid off and they’ll look for new talent with less pay.  So, I’d been advised to be more diverse and think outside the box.”

In case Ms. Marcene’s plan of working in the industry turns sour, she won’t quit.  “Even if I decide to go back, I can bring the design experience.”

A.Siddiquii and Bonne August, City Tech provost and vice president for academic affairs.

A.Siddiquii and Bonne August, City Tech provost and vice president for academic affairs.

Representatives from City Tech urge the graduates to remain optimistic.  “Let people see your passion,” said Bonne August, provost and vice president for academic affairs.  “Show how much you care about what you’re doing.  It will help you stand out.”

Judith Wilde, former mentor said, “Today is difficult, but I think Ayesha has a special gift, because she brings so much cultural diversity to the situation.  I suspect she’s going to find something, a good niche for her, where she belongs, where she could help people.”

At age six Ms. Siddiqui moved to a small town Salalah, Sultanate of Oman, only to discover colleges were off limits to immigrants.  With financial sacrifices, her late father advised she returned to her birthplace in Karachi, Pakistan to study.

By 1996, Ms. Siddiqui received a Bachelor’s Degree in Political Science from Karachi University; and shortly after married Muhammed Anwar, a New York resident who encouraged continuing her education in the US.  After years of delay in immigration process, they were eventually reunited in New York in 2000.

“Many of you will face [hardships] in the future,” she cautioned.  “[Don’t] give up, but find your strength from your weakness and your gain from your loss.”

In order to finance Ms. Siddiqui’s education Mr. Anwar, who earned a Master’s Degree in Medical Technology from St. John’s University in Queens, worked from 11pm to 7 am seven nights a week at Maimonides Medical Center’s blood bank.  And since relatives were away in Pakistan, she became doubtful of balancing the workload between studies and domestic life.  It was her husband who convienced otherwise.

A. Siddiqui, Imam Syamsi Ali, NYS Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli, City Tech President Russell K. Hotzler

A. Siddiqui, Imam Syamsi Ali, NYS Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli, City Tech President Russell K. Hotzler

Ayesha Siddiqui’s success story is significant to Syamsi Ali, Chairman of the Indonesian Muslim Community in New York and imam at the Islamic Cultural Center New York, the largest Mosque in the City.  He said her dedication “makes us proud,” and it was an honor to deliver the first Islamic invocation to US college graduates on behalf of the Muslim community.

“When Muslims are involved in such a big event, people acknowledge that Islam is here,” said 42 year old Indonesian born who is also a recipient of the 2009 Ellis Island Medal of Honor.  “Muslims are contributing positively to America and the world.”

During the prayer, Imam Syamsi Ali recited verses of the Holy Qur’an, including surah `Alaq (creation of man).  He reminded City Tech graduates to be thankful of the knowledge and wisdom God bestows and to be fully mindful of His mercy.

“Possibilities and impossibilities rest in [God’s] hands,” Imam Ali said. “And we look in the future with determination and high optimism.  With [God] nothing is impossible.”

Ayesha Siddiqui overcame the unexpected turns in life with full support of family, and has strived in becoming “an extremely modern woman,” acknowledged Robin Bargar, dean of The School of Technology and Design.

“I think this is the reward that we got, because of [father in-law’s] prayers and we should be thankful to Allah and everyone else around,” Mr. Anwar said.

And although she longs to receive calls from her father whenever she got an A grade, Ms. Siddiqui still senses his presence.  She is at ease, because “I’ll be his pride and that’s how he raised me.”

For schoolmate Natasha Marcene valedictorian Ayesha Siddiqui is both inspirational and humble.

    Before ending the ceremony, City Tech President Russell K. Hotzier asked the graduates to believe in their dreams; no matter what they may be; no matter how difficult.

    “As you leave, you’ll be in the heart of a great city,” he said. “A city that’s driven by ambition and talents from all corners of the world.  It symbolizes the unlimited opportunity.  It also serves as engines of life with all that’s possible, and even with what may appear to be impossible.”

    At the moment, Ayesha Siddiqui is in no hurry.  “The family is expecting me to be back in the kitchen,” she said. “I’ll miss the train and state of panic.  Now, I feel empty there’s no more deadline.  So, let’s see what I can do.  It’s always something good.”


    ~ by arita on June 5, 2009.

5 Responses to “Celebrating a dream: First-class student, nearly calling it quit”

  1. Thanks..

    Actually, the last sermon by Prophet Muhammad (SAW) was more than 1400 years ago…

    • Hi Mohammad. Thank you for reading my article. I am terrible sorry for the mistake. It was indeed a HUGE one, but I already fixed it. I highly appreciate your help. I’ll be more careful next time 🙂

  2. I am really proud of my friend Ayesha being a Pakistani Muslim female and a fellow graduate’09 of City Tech myself. She is a great inspiration. And she has a great personality. It felt great to read this article. Thanks Arita Soenarjono!

  3. Hello Sister Ayesha T, I am very happy you found my article useful. When I first met Ms. Siddiqui, it felt as though we had known each other for a while. She is indeed a remarkable woman; amicable and intelligent. Congratulations to you, as well!. Please let me know if you wish to share a good story with me.

  4. If only I had a buck for every time I came to ar1ta.wordpress.com… Amazing writing!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: