Sadia Saifuddin (BA ’14) recently was confirmed as the 40th student regent to sit on the University of California Board of Regents. She became the first Muslim to join the board.
MH: Congratulations on becoming the first Muslim member of the UC Board of Regents! What made you want to pursue the position?
Thank you! I applied for the position because I know what it is like to be a struggling student and worry about how you will make ends meet. Between rent, tuition, books, and food, there is very little wiggle room. Every penny counts. When my financial aid was stripped from me during my sophomore year, I worked three jobs during the day and tutored in the evenings so that I could make enough money to pay my rent. It was stressful and made my grades suffer, and that should never be the experience of any UC student. When the application was released, I thought for a long time about whether I wanted to pursue this position, and then decided that I would give it a shot and see what would happen. I didn’t think I had a chance; many more qualified and experienced people from around the state applied, but alhumdulillah it all worked out and now I’m here.
MH: What do you plan to do as a member of the UC Board of Regents?
I have two priorities on the Board. First, I want to fix the Financial Aid system to be more student friendly. Right now, its a quagmire and navigating the system is extraordinarily frustrating. I’ll be working with students and administrators to identify the gaps in the system and then submit policy recommendations to the campus and UCOP. Second, I want to bridge the gap between students and the Regents so that their policy decisions can be more informed by the student experience. I will be bringing different student communities together to meet with the Regents on a biannual basis so that they can speak about their concerns and experiences.
MH: You seem to be quite the activist on your campus, which stirred up controversy when it came to your appointment on the board, how did you overcome the negativity and backlash towards your appointment?
You know you are doing something right when you have haters. Haha, but in all seriousness, you have to believe in yourself. Integrity is HUGE for me, and I knew that as long as I was staying true to myself and my value system, I would be okay. The only person i have to be accountable to is myself, and as long as I knew that I was better than the person I was yesterday, I was doing my job. I also have the most supportive friends, and they surrounded me like a shield when things became difficult. Its thanks to the wonderful people in my life that I was able to overcome this obstacle.
MH: Many of the individuals who spoke against your appointment cited anti-Semitism as their main concern for your appointment. How did you deal with the fierce criticism of individuals? How did you respond?
It’s so funny to me that people called me an anti-semite. I’m anything but. I’ve advocated against hate of any kind for all communities. I’ve worked closely with the leaders of the Jewish and Israeli communities, and have very close personal relationships with them. I’ve been to Tikvah (the pro-Israeli organization on campus) and Hillel events. I’ve invited them to our townhalls and had open and honest conversations with them so we could learn from one another. I know who I am, and the people that have worked with me know who I am as well. I don’t need to respond to those allegations because my work speaks for itself. Many of my Jewish and Israeli friends wrote letters of support and op-eds in support of my appointment, and that was testament to the fact that the cries of anti-Semitism were unfounded and grounded in ignorance.
MH: Some of your supporters include Simone Zimmerman who is a recent graduate of UC Berkeley. And currently serves as the president of the J Street U National Student Board and wrote an article in the Haaretz in support of your nomination and wrote that those opposed to your appointment did not speak for her or the Jewish community. Have you received similar support from other organizations and individuals either on campus, in California, or other organizations outside of California?
I’ve received an enormous amount of support from UC students from all backgrounds. Like I mentioned earlier, students from all backgrounds wrote to the Regents in support of my nomination, urging them to confirm me. It was beautiful to witness so much solidarity, especially because we disagreed politically but they still believed that I would represent their interests. Simone is actually a good friend of mine that falls into that category. In fact, an old friend of mine from high school who was heavily involved in StandWithUs wrote me an email and said that she didnt believe what the media was saying about me and that as someone who knew me personally, she believed that I would be a great representative. I’ve had people recognize me on the street and say that they are Jewish and support my appointment, and I’ve even received mail with cards and letters of congratulations and support. It was heartening to see so much unification, and I am forever grateful to those folks that stood up for me, even if it was against their own community (shout out to my girl Simone, i love you!)
MH: Many Muslim college students and their parents are skeptical and scared of becoming political activists or advocates. In your own experience how have you dealt with this fear or skepticism about activism from Muslim parents and some Muslim college students?
In all honesty, it is scary to live in the current Islamophobic environment and be an activist. I commend all of those people that have the courage to do it, because following your heart and doing what you believe is right is usually coupled with a massive public smearing campaign (I can testify to this). In my experience, I learned to play the game and learned to play it well. Thanks to organizations like CAIR, I learned so much about the political system and what skills I needed to excel. At the root of all of that, I internalized the belief that when you fight for justice, Allah is ALWAYS on your side. There are so many times I have fallen to my knees and asked for a miracle, and I’ve gotten one. We are stronger than we think we are, and the moment we are too afraid to speak up is when the opposition has won. Truly, the only thing to fear is fear itself.
MH: In light of the NYPD spying on MSAs in New York, has there any drop in activism amongst Muslim college students at UC Berkeley or local California colleges?
Thankfully, there hasn’t been a drop in activism. In fact, organizations such as MSA West have grown and taken political stances to encourage activism (the theme for the 2012 MSA West Conference was #OccupYourself)
MH: Some MSA leadership argue that MSAs should remain silent on political issues to avoid scrutiny by media or local student groups or university administration. What are your thoughts on MSAs taking a more political role on college campuses? Should they take a more political role on campuses?
I believe that MSAs should absolutely have a political arm. At UC Berkeley, we have the Cal MSA Political Action Committee that handles all of the sit-ins, demonstrations, protests, political khateras, etc. We need to understand that the Muslim community is under attack. We need to get smart and learn how to take our place in our political system. We cannot sit quietly as our brothers and sisters suffer abroad and here in the states. The mission of the MSA is to provide Muslim students with a holistic college experience, and I think understanding our political system and having the opportunity to participate in it is a part of that. At the very least, it is an avenue to educate our communities and ourselves about issues facing Muslims in the US and abroad, and how we can craft solution to address them.
MH: Many college campuses are susceptible to Islamophobia and outside organizations causing problems for Muslim students on campuses. How would you recommend Muslim college students prepare themselves against the threat of Islamophobia on their campuses? What proactive steps can Muslim college students take?
I’m glad you asked this question, because battling hate of any kind is important. The first thing to do is to build coalitions. If there is any kind of incident that threatens other student communities even if they aren’t Muslim, we need to be there to stand with them and vocally express our support. This will ensure that when we are under attack, they will be there for us as well. Second, we need to call attention to these situations and bring them to higher levels, whether it is administratively or politically. When an Islamophobic lecturer at UC Santa Cruz was making inflammatory comments against the Muslim community, I wrote a bill condemning Islamophobia and citing specific incidences (including NYPD surveillance of college students) and it passed unanimously in our Senate. I then had that same bill passed at UC Irvine, UC Davis, UC Santa Barbara, and a few other schools. This called media attention to the situation and the ways this was negatively impacting campus climate. It also made it clear to the Islamophobes that we weren’t kidding around about fighting for our rights, and that we would not be bullied into silence. There are serious consequences to their actions.
MH: You’ll be graduating soon, what are your plans after graduation? What are your career goals?
After graduation, I would like to work for a couple of years and then get my MBA. I’m really interested in social innovation and design thinking, and McKinsey & Co have some amazing global consulting projects. I’m interested in development consulting, specifically for multinational organizations operating in developing countries, and how we can change their day to day operations to become more socially and environmentally friendly. Eventually, I would like to open my own consulting firm for corporations operating in developing countries so that they can contribute to their development in more positive ways.
MH: What advice would you give to Muslim college students who would like to get more involved on their campuses in their university administrations, student governments, boards, etc.?
My advice would be to branch out and step outside of their comfort zones. We need Muslims in all fields, and that takes courage. Find the courage in you to pursue your goals and always renew your intentions so that you are working for the betterment of the Ummah. Network with different communities and learn where the gaps are so that you can fill them. I happened upon the office of the Student Regent Designate when I was applying for jobs, and I got to know more about the job when I served as the previous Student Regent’s Chief of Staff. Look for out-of-the-box opportunities to flex your activist and leadership muscle, and don’t be afraid of doing something different. After all, the entire point of life is to learn as much as we can, and sometimes that requires jumping into the pool and learning how to swim.