Breaking Stereotypes (Studying with Fatima Al-Fihri)

At Williams we believe that bringing together students and professors in small groups produces extraordinary academic outcomes. Our distinctive Oxford-style tutorial classes—in which two students are guided by a professor in deep exploration of a single topic—are a prime example. Each week the students take turns developing independent work—an essay, a problem set, a piece of art—and critiquing their partner's work. Focused on close reading, writing, and oral defense of ideas, more than 60 tutorials a year are offered across the curriculum, with titles like "Aesthetic Outrage," "Financial Crises: Causes and Cures," and "Genome Sciences: At the Cutting Edge.” Imagine yourself in a tutorial at Williams. Of anyone in the world, whom would you choose to be the other student in the class, and why? (Please limit your response to 300 words.)

Fatima Al-Fihri: a woman who lived in the ninth century, and the founder of the world’s oldest university.

In a time when educated women were looked down upon and ridiculed, she broke all social barriers and founded the University of Qarawiyyin. It takes great dedication and strength to be able to fight the crowd and create something so essential that it changes the history of the world. Only an individual of great intelligence and bravery could have managed what she did.

Decades later, it still remains a challenge to live as an educated Muslim woman of color.

Growing up, social biases were like boulders in my way - even when I wanted to achieve the simplest of things. My gender, my religion, the way I dressed were often considered more important than my ideas and thoughts. I had to fight to be heard, I had to work hard to be taken seriously. To learn alongside a woman who faced difficulties far greater than I did and still managed to leave such a long-lasting positive mark on this world would be an honor. As an academic and a revolutionary, she’s an inspiration to me.

The work we would create would be greater than our identities as women, as Muslims, as people of color. It would go beyond the social structures that define how...

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