My name is Moiz Rehan. I’m 19 and I was born and raised in Islamabad, Pakistan. This is the story of how it took me 19 years to accept where I come from and what my background is.
My family did not have a lot of money when I was growing up. For the first 10 years of my life, I lived in a single room with my family. My mother and father used to sleep on the bed while my sister and I slept on the floor on a mattress. We didn’t have much but we had more than enough. My father is a driver and works for Federal Directorate of Education and my mother is a high school teacher at a public school in Islamabad. Growing up in a culture where social class was considered your identity was quite hard for me. Despite the fact that my parents never let me or my sister feel inferior to anyone, I was still scared of telling anyone at school that my dad was a driver. I did not want to be called the “driver’s kid.” I wanted to make a name for myself. I wanted to work hard and prove to the world that it does not matter where you came from as long as you believe in yourself.
Throughout my public education experience in elementary, middle, and high school, I did very well academically. I got scholarships that allowed me to visit Japan when I was 10 and the US when I was 15. I lived in Chicago as an exchange student for a year and went to a fantastic private school called Francis W. Parker. During that year, I discovered my passion for theater, cooking, and community service. That year totally changed my life and how I looked at the world. I learned how to respect people not on the basis of their background but on the basis of their hard work, character, and their treatment of those around them.
While in the US, it no longer mattered what my dad did for a living because I had the chance to reinvent myself, discover my interests, and create my own identity. This shift in perspective was one of the biggest reasons why I believe it was the best year of my life so far. It allowed me to become the person I wanted to be and to stop caring about what anyone else thought. I was beginning to break out of the mentality which had been imbued within me since I was a kid: that my identity was restricted to my background.
However, after returning to Pakistan in 2013 and joining a private school, I was once again too scared to say anything about my background. The kids I went to school with were much more affluent than me and while that didn’t directly matter to me anymore, I was still too self-conscious to share my background with anyone. I knew by now what my strengths were (academics, public speaking, project management, community service) and I knew how to create opportunities for myself, but I was still unsure of how exactly to come out of my fear of other people’s judgments of my background.
My opportunity to break out of my self-conscious shell emerged when I became the first Pakistani to win Horlicks Wizkids 2014 – a talent competition that takes places in Bangalore, India. Being one of the five winners out of 40 fantastic semi-finalists was not only extremely humbling but it also made me realize that the only thing holding me back from breaking out of my shell was myself. Winning such a prestigious competition allowed me to fully believe in my capabilities – the confidence boost made me become less self-conscious. My shell had been broken but my metamorphosis had just begun.
I returned back to Pakistan and busied myself with more community service projects, especially ones about teaching the English language to underprivileged students. To my dismay, I still found myself avoiding questions about what my father did and what my “story” was. While applying for colleges during my senior year, I was tempted to share my story on the CommonApp essay, but I didn’t want to play that card. I was determined to get into a college based on my accomplishments alone. I was not looking for sympathy. I wanted proof that my hard work was enough to get me into a good college. Quite unexpectedly, most colleges that I applied to didn’t think my accomplishments were good enough. I got rejected from all the Ivy league colleges I applied to and got waitlisted from some of the better colleges on my wish list. I was somewhat disheartened but I did not give up. I knew that my parents had put in too much effort in my education for me to not get into a place I would be happy at. The last college admissions email I got was from Williams College. Turned out I had gotten into the then number one liberal arts college in the US with a very generous financial aid package.
Getting into Williams was the cherry on the cake. The sense of accomplishment finally made me confident enough me to share my story with those around me. My opportunity to do so came during July, 2015 when I had the chance to speak at a school event where the graduating seniors shared their personal stories with prospective freshmen.
With my heart beating like a drum, I got on stage and the words came out slowly but steadily: My paternal grandfather was in the army and left my grandmother for another woman after having 11 children with her. My grandmother raised all the kids on her own but without any major financial support from relatives – my father sacrificed his own education to care of his siblings. He had a tough upbringing, to say the least (at this point in my speech, I was sobbing like a baby). His marriage with my mother was arranged yet they became partners in bringing up their kids. My mom completed her Master’s degree in Education with two little kids to take care of but never uttered a word of complaint. My father supported her every step of the way. Both of them are truly the most amazing people I know and I am kind of ashamed that I felt self-conscious for most of my life about telling people about my father’s profession.
The moment I finished my speech, there was a stunned silence. And then suddenly, every single person in the hall stood up and applauded. I felt relief like I had never felt before in my life.
Arriving at Williams, I was totally ready and self-confident to share with anyone who wanted to know where I came from and who I was. But the stress of the first semester stopped me from really being open about myself. Now in my much more relaxed second semester, I am finally at a time and place where I am proud of my background and totally okay with sharing it with everyone. Everything that I have been able to accomplish is due to my parents, my sister and the unwavering support from my teachers, mentors, and friends along the way. I have never told anyone about my background and I think it’s the right time to do so.
My story is not an extremely unique one – thousands of kids from middle-class backgrounds in Pakistan are making names for themselves through their hard work and devotion. My intention by sharing my story is to not only to thank every single person who has helped me get where I am in my life but also to help other people who might read this to get inspired to share their life stories. We should be proud of our backgrounds. Without my background, people can’t put me in context or truly understand me as a person. Without my background, my accomplishments are at a danger of becoming meaningless. Without embracing where I come from, I cannot go where I want to go.
So that’s why I believe that no matter where you are, your dreams are valid. My goal in life is to bring the opportunities that I have been blessed with to those who deserve them and to help people wherever I go. I realize that I have been extremely blessed in a lot of ways and I believe that giving back is my responsibility. I intend to return to Pakistan after completing my education in the US and to help people in Pakistan in every way I can. Till then and for the rest of my life, I will continue to grow, learn, to believe in myself and to be proud of my parents.
Ps. Please feel free to visit my profile on Facebook for a photo journey through my life: https://www.facebook.com/moizleo1/photos/