Maha Ibrahim's Reflection on Miller Scholars Program at Cal

I grew up in a rural town in Northern Indiana. I had a difficult childhood. I performed terribly in high school. My high school had a wall outside of the counselor’s office where they tacked up posters and flyers from colleges and universities. These were from a few Midwest public school systems, but mostly small, private, Christian fundamentalist schools.

My senior year I saw on that wall a new oversized postcard I had never seen before. It was blue and a beautiful deep yellow and it had a picture of a grey-bricked clock tower on it. I asked my school counselor about that card. She told me that was Berkeley. I asked her where that was. She said California. I asked her how you get to go to that school. She told me not to worry about it – real people don’t go there.

She then reminded me that the new Super Walmart on the other side of Old Road 30 was hiring, and that I should go pick up an application so I could start getting ready for graduation. 

Six months after graduation I flew to Riverside, California on a one-way ticket. I had never been to California before. The only thing I knew about California was that it was not Indiana.

I had no plan and no prospects. I found my community college by looking up “college” in the yellow pages. When I went there to register, I saw the admissions office lined with banners, posters, and cards advertising a number of schools –Cal States, Universities of California, private schools, professional schools.

I was 18 years old. I had no idea what a “transfer” was. I did not know California had a web of public schools sewn together by a “master plan.” I had never heard of the word “matriculation.”

There, on the wall at the community college, was that same oversized blue and gold postcard. When I asked the community college counselor about that postcard he gave me a very different answer than my high school counselor had given me.

Now, I had a dream. I had a goal. I spent a lonely two years hustling. I was completely out of my element – I once raised my hand in class and asked what a “Chicana” was. I myself am half-Egyptian. I followed an Iranian professor around for 6 months because I thought we was Egyptian, too. I didn’t know the difference. I met a great mentor – my first mentor – but I found few friends and no community in this new and strange place.

I was driven, but mostly alone. I didn’t have family to move me in when I got into Cal. I didn’t have a car. I took an Amtrak from Corona to Berkeley with one suitcase and a sheath of printed papers from my community college’s computer lab. The papers were financial aid documents, campus maps, where my dorm was, a 2004 academic calendar – and a letter of acceptance to the Miller Scholars Program – a program that had found me. A program that had invited transfer students to apply instead of leaving us to find it.

This letter told me I was now part of a “cohort” – another word I had never heard before. It told me a man named George was going to help me pay for college. And it gave me an address to an office where I could find the program’s director and where I was to come for a welcome party.

In short, this letter told me that I belonged here. That I had “people” here, people of my own. And that those people, and this man George, wanted me here and that they believed me and believed in me. They were investing. And they lived up to the letter.

For two years that office was a sanctuary. Our dinners, our meetings, our thesis work, our peer review, our 20-year-old meltdowns. We were always welcome in that place, we always belonged, and we were always a cohort. We were always believed and believed in.

Today, I’m a women’s civil rights lawyer. I mostly practice Title IX and Title VII, which means that my clients have been sexually discriminated against, harassed, or assaulted at work or at school. And, when they reported it, they were betrayed by their own institutions.

A number of attorneys who do this work are themselves survivors of sexual assault, and they bring that experience with them to inform their practice and connect with their clients. I am not a survivor of sexual assault, so I cannot walk in my clients’ shoes in that way.

But I am a Miller’s Scholar. I know what it means to be given “place.” I know what it means to be assured that you are not alone. I know what it means to be invested in, and to have a cohort and a benefactor and a program director who want you to stay in and succeed at your institution – one of the greatest institutions in the world. I know what it means to be believed and believed in. And that’s what informs my practice. That’s what I want for my clients.

— Maha Ibrahim, 2004 Miller Scholar