Who Says the American Dream Is Dead?
Zakia Mahabub taught herself English as a child growing up in Bangladesh. At twelve, she read the biography of a Bangladeshi man who went to America to study anthropology. When she closed the book, her world flew open. She fixed her sights on becoming an anthropologist. But being female, she could not seek education above high school in her country.
“It was her vision that she come to America for higher education,” her proud mother told us.
An uncle who had won a lottery for a visa to the U.S. was waiting in New York to become a citizen. At 18, Zakia reached out to her uncle and took on the daunting emigration process until she was able to bring her whole family to the U.S. Executing that monumental passage took her until her 21st year. While waiting and hoping to be admitted to a famous community college, Zakia took AP courses in English literature.
The petite girl was awed by the size of LaGuardia Community College. Taking up a full block in the immigrant heart of Queens, New York, it is open year-round to 20,000 degree students. Mainly immigrants and minorities, they are willing to work two or three jobs to support children they’ve already had or parents they help to survive, for the chance to earn as associate’s degree that is their ticket to the dream of a full college education.
Zakia is among the diminishing number of young people who still believe in the American dream—and make it come true.
Once admitted as a computer science major, she helped her family settle in a mini-Bangladesh corner of Jackson Heights. The family was happy to be together and in a neighborhood with familiar smells and gossip. But at the start of Zakia’s senior year, her father, an engineer who worked 14-hour days, suffered a heart attack.
Zakia went to LaGuardia’s troubleshooting office. The staff works inexhaustibly to come up with solutions for problems that threaten to thwart graduation within three or up to six years. Zakia needed a third job. It had to pay enough for her to share the rent with her father and pay for phone and internet service. The staff went to work on pitching her as an ideal tour guide at the Museum of Modern Art Queens Annex. Zakia loves dressing in her red, white and blue hijab and is infectiously enthusiastic in chatting up visitors.
Zakia graduated on June 7, 2017 and was accepted to Queens College. The ebullient young woman, by then 24, was in love with researching and writing and still wants to be an anthropologist.
In the summer after her graduation, Zakia flew back to her home country to marry her patient fiancé. She planned to return in midyear to enter Queens College and start her new life as a married woman in America. But she feared that President Trump’s travel ban might hold her back. As a Muslim , it stung to feel that she was now an unwanted “other” in the country she hopes to adopt.
She made the risky decision to try to reenter by herself. She made it.
That fall, Zakia mused on her Facebook page about the adult responsibilities she has taken on, checking off her ability to do public speaking, call the doctor herself, file her taxes, argue without crying, and learn to practice a normal sleep pattern. After posting this list, she asked herself, “Am I an adult, then?”