In honor of International Day of the Girl, ONE Campus Leader Shaila Huq shares her incredible journey to becoming a global anti-poverty activist.
This blog post is the first of a three-part series between ONE Campus and ONE Girls & Women spotlighting female college students across the country who are changing the world through their activism, leadership, and ambition, all before the age of 22.
My parents are remarkable people.
My father had to choose between staying with his family or getting an education. The eldest son from a small village in Bangladesh, he made the heart-wrenching decision to leave his immediate family at a young age to get an education in the capital, Dhaka. He spent his teens there struggling to survive the bloody Bangladesh Liberation war on his own. My Dad holds a master’s from Johns Hopkins University – an outcome unheard of in his native village.
My mother comes from Mauritius, an island off the coast of Africa (next to Madagascar, sans talking animals), and has a large family with caring parents. In Mauritius, women of color were not eligible for education due to a culture steeped in racism, classism, and sexism. My mom found a way by earning enough money to travel across the world all by herself at about my age to find that education.
Each of my parents sacrificed everything they knew to break the mold of poverty. They were a self-made success story. Together, they were able to rise above their respective sacrifices and circumstances to create a loving and supportive environment for me and my siblings. They fostered a sense that one must work hard to reap the benefits of a full life.
But the emphasis was always on education and schooling as a means for conventional success.
Politics and the struggles of people living in the poorest parts of the world never really made their way into dinner conversation. Those were taboo subjects in our family. At 10 years old, I tried sharing with my parents the baby-seal skinning video that made me literally throw up. I tried to explain why I wanted to go vegetarian and why I cared more about animal welfare than long division. I shared my worries about global warming (and explained what global warming was). I asked why girls in other parts of the world did not have the same opportunities as me.
All of these concerns seemed to go unheard by my parents, who shook off my questions with a gentle reminder that I should be focusing on my studies.
It’s not my parents’ faults—they did care about the issues but, perhaps out of a desire to protect me, a sense of hopelessness, or perhaps their own pride in having overcome what they did, they didn’t see the point in discussing what they thought could not be changed. They believed my contribution to society would be through following my education to become a doctor.
Their indifference confused me, and I felt voiceless. There was a gaseous nebula of some unknown emotion clawing at my ribcage, begging to be ignited. But my parents’ views were everything to me, and I didn’t want to disappoint them.
Then in 6th grade, I met Mrs. O’Neill. She taught social studies, but went far beyond her duties as a teacher to guide her students towards becoming engaged citizens. She was the first teacher and person, really, to tell me that my voice mattered, that I could enact the change I wished to see in the world. She saw the empathy balled up in the pit of my stomach; saw the untapped potential in my reckless 11 year old self. She lit the flame.
That same year, I stumbled across ONE.org, liked their mission to end extreme poverty, and signed my first online petition ever. That simple act was a game-changer. It made me realize that there was a community of engaged, active, and passionate citizens who were empowered to change things. But even as I began to find my place among these activists, I remained focused on my parents’ primary wish for me to focus inward and become a doctor. Little did I know how much that would change once I got to college.
In 2011, I started my college career at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey. I chose to major in public health because it originally seemed like a reasonable major for a pre-med pathway. But as I took more classes and delved into the inequalities that inform public health policy both locally and internationally, I felt that same spark from my childhood begin to well up, pressing into my ribs, screaming to be acknowledged.
I felt less and less compelled to follow the path my parents so dearly wished for me and more invested in taking action to combat the egregious wrongs in the world we live in.
I knew I had to take my passion beyond academia. When I found out that ONE had a college program through which I could mobilize my peers to affect the lives of people halfway across the world, I had to join. I became a ONE Campus Leader and built a team of student advocates from the ground up.
Today, I sit on ONE’s Student Advisory Board—a group of ONE’s top 16 student leaders from across the country who help shape ONE’s national student campaigns, and I travel to organize ONE chapters at other colleges and universities. I’m a leader and organizer for several other organizations and causes I care about, too, including women’s equality, consumer rights, and environmental preservation. I’m proud to say I‘ve unlocked leadership potential inside myself that I didn’t know existed when I was a little girl.
I understand now why my parents put such a huge emphasis on my studies. I get it. And I’m forever grateful to them for giving me the opportunities that I have today. But I’ve learned that being a global citizen is just as important to becoming a whole person. I’ve learned that advocacy is a necessity, our elected leaders do listen when we raise our voices, and apathy is not a viable option. To come to this understanding, I had to defy my parents a little. I guess that’s just a part of growing up.
I encourage you to believe in the power of your own voice and what you believe is right. It doesn’t matter if you have zero knowledge of (or desire to enter) politics. It doesn’t matter if the only dinner-time debates your family engages in are about Donald Trump’s toupee. It doesn’t matter if you have spent your whole life being told that you will not be heard and therefore should not try.
After all, no person should ever again have to choose between their home or breaking the cycle of poverty, like my parents did.
Shaila Huq is a fourth-year Public Health major and Political Science minor at Rutgers University. As a ONE Campus Leader, she works to empower students to use their voices in the fight against extreme poverty and preventable disease. In addition to serving as a ONE Campus Leader, Shaila is a ONE Regional College Organizer, sits on ONE’s Student Advisory Board, writes for the New Brunswick Today, leads Take Back the Tap on her campus, and is an Organizer with Food and Water Watch.