Maria Ulayyet: What the Empowered Arab Sisterhood has done for me

Tuesday, January 22, 2019 - 4:29pm

Culture shock.

For the first time in my life, I finally knew and felt what those two words really meant. As I walked into that lecture hall in the Chemistry Building on the first day of my freshman orientation, I felt like an alien. I desperately looked around the packed auditorium to find another person of color, to find someone even remotely like me, even if it were just in our shared feeling of being different.

During the last month at home between my orientation and my move-in day, I dreaded having to go back to Ann Arbor. Everyone had made friends at orientation and was relieved to be leaving home, but I couldn’t relate. I was scared. I felt so alone during my three-day orientation. I couldn’t believe that the joy of the moment of going away to an amazing school, a moment I had been waiting for for years, had been so discreetly stolen away from me.

As both the oldest child and oldest girl in my Arab immigrant family, going away for college had been out of the question until my junior year. My parents told me if I could get into a good school, I could move out for college. Seeing my hard work as a student go to waste was my greatest fear. With limited help from my school and no help from my family, I tried to figure out the ACT, SAT, Common Application and other college application materials. So when I got into the University during my senior year, I felt like I finally succeeded. Little did I know that the struggles for me were just now beginning.

As a first-generation American, first-generation college student and an Arab-Muslim woman, I quickly realized that, as I sank into my seat in the corner of that auditorium in the Chemistry Building, the odds weren’t really in my favor.

Who could I relate to here? Who would I be friends with? Who was I going to study with? Who was I going to spend the alleged “best years” of my life with?

Enter Epsilon Alpha Sigma — better known as the Empowered Arab Sisterhood — the first and only nationally recognized predominantly-Arab sorority. Nearly a year and a half later, with my 14 sisters by my side, I can finally say the University has become my second home. I never pegged myself for the sisterhood type, let alone a “sorority girl,” but now I can’t imagine my college life any other way. EAS was the space I never knew I needed, but in reality, I was drowning without it.

As Arab women, many of us the daughters of immigrants, our presence of simply being at the University of Michigan is stigmatized. For me, a lot of Arab women from my hometown either didn’t go to college or went to local schools. Going away was almost always out of the question. Simply being at Michigan felt groundbreaking to me. But simply being here isn’t enough.

As minorities, we’re always playing catch up. We can get the good grades and the test scores, but we lack the key component: the network.

One of EAS’s many purposes is to fill this gap. By bringing together the most ambitious and passionate Arab women leaders on campus, it is creating a network of young female professionals. Rather than a toxic culture of women constantly tearing each other down and competing with one another, EAS serves to provide a breath of fresh air of women lifting each other up and helping each other reach their academic and professional goals. We want to break the stigma against Arab women in leadership roles.

Throughout my life as an Arab woman, I’ve never truly felt like I fit in with white people and drifted to other communities of color. And while I find solace in our conjoined alienation and marginalization, there still remained a gap. As more Arab women are reaching college and our communities continue to grow, it is especially pertinent to provide these spaces like EAS so that we no longer have to feel lost and alone.

Through EAS, we’re going to beat the odds that have always been stacked against us.

Maria Ulayyet can be reached at mulayyet@umich.edu.