There is one constant that everyone searches for in life — protection. For me, that search began when I held the winning lottery ticket in my hand: an immigration acceptance letter to America randomly given to 10,000 families (out of 1.7 million applicants) each year.
I can recall the sounds of my younger brother’s tiny feet running down the airplane’s runway as my family boarded Egypt Air, flying to the United States with hopes of a simpler, safer life. However, shortly after my arrival, my fellow Coptic Christians back home were bombed.
The day it happened, I was in the midst of Sunday morning liturgical chants. I remember looking toward the dimly lit altar, while inhaling the aroma of burning incense, in celebration of Palm Sunday. Mid-prayer, a notification appeared on my iPhone screen, reading, “ISIS Claims Responsibility for 49 Deaths at Church Bombings in Egypt.” As I swiped the notification, my lock-screen revealed young children’s limbs strewn along the floor, covered in debris. Men rushed through the crowded streets of Alexandria, dragging stretchers. Tears raced down the cheeks of panicked mothers, praying to hear their child’s voice once more. The place that my Coptic family always went to for protection seemed — for the first time — unprotected.
So as a 9-year-old, I was confronted with my positionality of privilege — even though it felt like anything but. The burden of escapism was pressing. Why did I deserve this privilege of immigration — of escape — over everyone else? The bombings happened all the time, even when I lived there. But for some reason, the alienation and the distance birthed an unequivocal shame and festered the guilt.
It was paradoxical — I felt more of a pull to my community being away from it than I did back home. But, to an extent, this was good as it provided me a sense of belonging after my immigration and allowed me to remain grounded in my roots.
Immigration offers an escape. It also offers poverty. For our first three months, we lived off white bread and plastic-wrapped American cheese in a basement, while my parents anxiously searched for minimum-wage jobs. When they both eventually entered the fast-food business, we decided to move out to the cheapest apartment we could afford. There, my childhood would be spent playing basketball almost every day at a local park with older guys who were often intoxicated. This court, which became a medium for most of my childhood memories, was where I was also robbed three times and put in a choke hold.
But immigration is not a sob story. I eventually learned the language, adapted to the culture, and made friends — primarily through my basketball team. I became comfortable and happy here. However, there are certain things I believe many immigrants — and first-generation students alike — experience. I wanted to make my family proud. My parents sacrificed their years of education and high-end jobs to restart and become minimum-wage employees upon immigration. I owe them. My success is theirs.
In Egypt, every parent dreams of their child becoming a doctor — the highest rank of success. So, from an early age, I was focused on the medical field. My parents’ praises of it, combined with my hunger to make them proud, fueled this pursuit. As I grew older, however, it became apparent that my parents’ dreams will be my own reality for many years. I gave medicine a chance, though. In high school, I volunteered in hospitals, conducted research on prostate cancer and shadowed doctors, among other health-related activities.
Although I was in love with the service aspect, there was no field in medicine I was passionate about — until I shadowed my local dentist. I observed his typical days, the kinds of interactions he had with patients, life outside of dentistry and the necessary skills he needed. As a barber, I was amazed by his attention to detail and its impacts on the overall appearance of a tooth. I quickly fell in love with the opportunity to continue to use my hands in a way that serves others in seemingly immediate ways.
This goal of becoming a dentist is a difficult one. It requires mastery in some of the hardest classes college has to offer, a strong performance on the DAT, and convincing extracurriculars and experiences. It is tough. As a consequence, immigrants and other minority groups are likely to develop imposter syndrome. I certainly felt this way most of my life, but especially in my transition to college. Unlike high school, where many of my peers were on a similar socioeconomic level as myself, I felt disadvantaged and inferior in college. Many of my classmates graduated from top high schools and came from wealthier families. I didn’t fit in and didn’t feel smart enough, especially given that my grade was based on a curve and my grade depended on others’ performances.
I struggled a lot. But I was often reminded that everyone’s path is different. There is no one path to dentistry. While it is quite important to get good grades, it is true that your value and potential are not determined by a three-digit number on a transcript. There is more to life than just school. Do things you love. For me, that is basketball. Enjoy your friends’ company. College only happens once. Do not waste your years in college solely focused on dental school. Dental school will come in due time. Enjoy the journey. I have found that I perform stronger in school when I establish a balance between academics and doing things I love.
Although I am not in dental school yet, I know that my time will come — as long as I stick with the course and continue to work hard. And while you do the same, check in on yourself and be sure you are doing what makes you happy — what makes you you.
~Andrew Naguib, Boston College ‘23