By: Amer Taleb, Magellan Circle Scholar and UA journalism alumnus, class of 2015
Essay published in the 2015-2016 issue of SBS Developments magazine.
“Yes or No?”
It’s hard to believe that a single-word response could affect me as drastically as it has. To quell concerns that I’m overdramatizing, “yes” was the difference between spending another winter break in Tucson or going to Nigeria to live with a former president.
That story is toward the end of this article, but for the readers who may be short on time, here’s the crux and two of the most important lessons I learned at the University of Arizona:
1) Open new doors and 2) Embrace the journey.
Here are three quick stories to illustrate how my life has been shaped by a willingness to say “yes” to new opportunities while also remaining flexible enough to change directions at times:
1) It was either pre-med or journalism. My preference prior to entering the UA was toward reporting, primarily because I thought it would give me a chance to travel, meet people, and tell their stories. But like a nail lodged deep into a rubber tire, my first day in Journalism 105 deflated my enthusiasm.
It seemed like every student was more experienced than I was, and even now, I can remember walking out of the Modern Languages Building feeling like this reporting thing was a mistake.
I’m not sure why I stuck with it, but I did. And though I couldn’t have known it at the time, deciding to dip my toes into the unknown was easily one of the most important decisions I’ve made in 23 years.
I’ve had the privilege of covering landmark Supreme Court cases, a presidential inauguration, and have helped write scripts for CNN anchors through reporting internships.
I said “yes” to journalism, and in turn, it gave me the ability to write well, think critically, and, via hundreds of interviews, develop a sincere appreciation for the beauty of the human spirit.
2) A week before my last interview for a summer internship with a prominent think tank in Washington, D.C., I typed one of the toughest emails of my life.
“As difficult as it is to write this,” my message read, “I have to rescind my internship application.”
Even just copying and pasting that line into this article stings, and so it begs the question: Why did I walk away?
It’s a long story, but here’s the short version: Even now, my love for journalism is as strong as it’s ever been. But since traditional, mainstream outlets typically require that reporters be as objective and non-partisan as possible, it became difficult to balance being a journalist with my desire to play a more active role in the issues I care about. So, I decided to try interning at a research institution, but after I found out I’d been named a finalist, I found myself yearning to have a more direct and immediate impact still.
Upon mulling my options, I ended things amicably with the think tank and signed up to volunteer at a Mexican orphanage last June.
Yet again, trying something new yielded an important learning experience, and in this instance, one of the most moving I’ve ever had. Not only because of everything the kids taught me, but also because of my familial connection to the country.
Though my mother wasn’t an orphan, she was born into severe poverty in Mexico—which, at times, meant living in a cave with her family. Volunteering in the country my mom was born in, and seeing things come full circle, is an experience I’ll remember for as long as I live.
3) In my senior year, I was faced with a question I was not expecting: “Hey, would your mom have a heart attack if we sent you to Nigeria?”
What became one of the most eye-opening experiences of my life began as a joke, but once again, after careful consideration, I responded in the affirmative.
To conduct research for a book on African leadership I’m co-authoring with Leslye Obiora, a UA professor of law, I lived with former Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo at his compound in Nigeria from last December to this past January.
While true that there were more risks associated with this trip than any I had done in the past, assessing these issues with my professor revealed that the trek was much safer than I initially thought. And it taught me not to dismiss a new opportunity without giving it its due contemplation —even if the stakes are higher than what you’re used to.
Being open to new opportunities, even if I wasn’t 100 percent sure where they were taking me, has led me to the realization that I would like to work toward increasing access to education in developing countries. Every experience I’ve outlined here, as well as the countless others I’ve had at the UA, made me who I am.
I understand that this essay will be read by donors, and so I’d like to stray from the script and speak to them directly. To the people who have supported the Magellan Circle, Arizona Assurance, or any of the other scholarship I’ve been fortunate enough to receive, thank you so much from the bottom of my heart.
You didn’t just pay for my books, you changed my life.
In addition to making everything I’ve done and all that I’ll become possible, you’ve also helped vindicate the sacrifices my parents made to get me an education in the U.S. I will never, ever forget how much I owe you, and I promise that if I’m ever in the position to help students the way you’ve helped me, I will.
To sum up this portion in a single sentence: Thank you for making me feel that my dreams are both legitimate and possible.
As I finish the closing lines to this piece, I’m in the last stages of packing my bags to head to Turkey in the morning. I’ll be working as a university English teacher on a Fulbright Scholarship over the course of the next year.
Once again, I’m entering a new world full of excitement. Uncertainty. Opportunity.