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Meet the Muslim Girl Phenom Who’s Taking Over the World One Ivy League at a Time

Meet the Muslim Girl Phenom Who’s Taking Over the World One Ivy League at a Time

Muslim girls are taking over the world, y’all! For real, 2016 (and every year from here on out) should be known as the year of the Muslim Girl. Olympics? Got it. Abayas that charge your electronics that are solar powered? Check! Ivy-league takeover? With a smile and a latte. So easy!
Meet our very own Super Girl, Marwa Abdulhai. We’re pretty sure you’ll be hearing about Marwa again in a few years when she wins a Nobel Peace Prize or something like that. Homegirl’s been accepted into some major Ivy League schools, along with other top rated universities. (Ohhhhh, the choices she’ll have to make!) We here at Muslim Girl know how fabulous she is because she’s been a regular writer (or as we like to call our writers, a regular MG soldier) for the last three years. Even at the young age of 17, she’s been able to provide some serious thought-provoking pieces that get our readers talking. So, it’s no wonder she’s wowed the academic world. We are so proud of her, and wanted to share with you all the a day in the life of an academic (and creative) phenom.
Muslim Girl: How do you do it? What’s a normal day in the life of Marwa like?
Marwa Abdulhai: I try to vary my days as much as possible. I take six to seven classes a day at school, and most of them are AP or Honors Classes, so it gets pretty exhausting. Back as a freshman and sophomore, I would de-stress as a sprinter in track or as a member of the basketball team.

Marwa with Girls Holmdel Track Division Champs
Marwa with Girls Holmdel Track Division Champs
These days I go out for a run, or spend some time with my mum or sister before getting started with my work. Other than allocating a couple of hours for studying and homework, I spend time writing as a Global/Faith blogger for Muslim Girl, which I’ve been doing for the past three years. I’m also a part of the New Jersey Science League, Math League, and American Computer Science League, so some days I’m prepping for those contests. I am a pretty intense coder so I’m always working on one CS project or the other, but that usually happens on weekends.
MG: Where does your drive/inspiration come from?
MA: I come from the Muslim minority of Southern India, where girls get little to no education, and are destined to spend their adult lives as homemakers. I have experienced this through the lives of my mother and grandmothers, who, despite their brilliance, couldn’t acquire an education or build a career of their own.

In my family there was no son to carry the mantle of education, but instead three girls who held a sense of curiosity, audacity, and competition.

This background of mine has become a springboard in actively taking charge of my education, developing a strong interest in mathematics and computer science, with the ultimate goal of improving lives of women – not just in my community – but also in the world at large.
MG: What schools have been accepted to so far?

Marwa with John Harvard statue
Marwa with John Harvard statue
MA: I have been accepted to MIT, Cornell, Columbia, Harvard, Caltech, and UT Austin for computer science.
[At the time of writing, Marwa said she was deciding between Harvard & MIT, and would have solid decision by the first of May; however, she got ahead of the game (as always!) and committed to MIT.]
MG: What’s been your biggest challenge academically so far, and how did you overcome it?
MA: Growing up in Seattle, I embraced the hijab at the age of nine as part of tradition without considering the consequences of what that would eventually mean. Because of my father’s job I spent a lot of time traveling, living and studying in Riyadh, Doha, and Dubai where I carefully observed what it meant to be a woman striving for change. I found unwritten rules everywhere that forbade girls from pursuing sports or higher education.
After moving to New Jersey for high school, the hijab became a bigger barrier, and I had to re-double my efforts in developing relationships with teachers & peers. But with determination and help from a supportive coach, I was able to move past everyone’s aversion and made it to the school basketball team, hijab fully intact.
My Islamic background didn’t stop me from excelling in sports & academics, the same way it didn’t stop me from conducting bioinformatics research as a Rutgers Waksman Scholar.

Through my struggles as a Muslim woman, and moving schools a few times, I realized there were people who appreciated the ideas thriving in my head more than what I wore on top of it.

MG: What are your long-term goals?
MA: Although I want to study computer science next fall, I have an obligation to decrease the suffering in our world. The world today is acutely concerned about the Arab and Islamic world, and how it can be reformed to bring about international harmony.

I believe the solution lies in empowering Muslim girls with an education; that will transform entire nations.

Marwa addressing JIT (Jahangirabad Institute of Technology)
Marwa addressing JIT (Jahangirabad Institute of Technology)
I have an obligation to foster a global understanding between cultures, and prove that a great education for young Muslim girls, particularly in computer science or medicine, can create sustainable interlinked communities.

I yearn to break the glass ceiling that envelopes the minds of girls in India, Syria, and Afghanistan and make them realize that wearing the hijab should not deter them from following their dreams.

This long-term goal of mine is well underway. As the co-founder of the New Jersey Chapter of Indian Muslim Relief and Charities, I have worked towards raising money for education and healthcare for the underprivileged children and women in India afflicted with poverty, domestic violence, and natural disasters.
I led a youth group this summer in the remote Indian villages around Hyderabad, Lucknow, and Kashmir, to learn first-hand how IMRC programs are improving the lives of women.

Marwa with IMRC Challenger Girls
Marwa with IMRC Challenger Girls
I came back home and began an initiative to provide 100 villages in Kashmir with access to clean drinking water. Right now, in the areas where people are suffering from water-borne diseases, water wells are being constructed as we speak.  I receive updates in the form of pictures and videos all the time.
When I visited the Challenger Girls Orphanage and School in Hyderabad, on the other hand, I saw girls who wanted to be police officers, and like myself, engineers. I want to be an inspiration to them through the work I do, and show them the beauty of learning for the love of it. When I look into their eyes, I remember my mother, who did not achieve what she could have.
MG: How did you feel when you got all of those acceptance letters?
MA: I was extremely shocked and blessed! As the decision dates for many universities drew nearer and nearer, I was overcome by anxiety and fear that I would not have any options at all. But Allah (swt) really has blessed me with so many choices, that I still haven’t made up my mind as to where I’ll be heading this fall!
[She chose MIT, y’all!]
I cannot express enough my love and appreciation for all my mentors and teachers who have gotten me to where I am now–especially my parents, who did not know heads or tails on what it takes to apply to and get accepted to a university, a top one at that, in the United States.
My family back home, on the other hand, doesn’t really know what a university like Harvard means, or even looks like, so when I showed them pictures of the university, they were really proud of me.
MG: What advice would you give your younger self?
MA: There is so much advice I would give my younger self. After moving to Holmdel, New Jersey, for high school, I was very intimidated. I saw my classmates with connections beyond anything I ever had, and achievements beyond anything I thought I could ever do. I beat myself up for every bad grade I received and really caused a lot of unnecessary stress for myself and for my family, who has been a constant support through every struggle. I was really lost in the beginning, and later realized that I should do what I love to do for the sake of learning, no matter how others may have perceived me to be.
For all four years, I’ve seen people follow a strict ‘recipe’ towards success–taking internships at huge companies, founding their own non-profits, taking multiple AP tests, and having someone they know help them do a research projects in a field they don’t even like. At the end of my high-school career, I broke many of these rules. I took one year of AP US History because everyone else was doing it, even though I hated it. I dropped it the next year because I realized my mistake.
I did not do a “strict” summer/internship program in my junior year. Instead I went back to my home country of India, where I was able to learn more about myself and the work I’ve been doing as a volunteer for the Indian Muslim Relief & Charities. I quit many of the clubs I had joined in my sophomore and freshman years of high school simply because the upperclassmen part of those very same clubs had gotten into top schools.

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At the end of the day, working towards a top college should not have been my destination. Rather, I realized that having a passion, and working against the grain would lead me right where I needed to be in life.

 As you see, we have a real leader within the Muslim Girl family (say ma shaa Allah!), and we couldn’t be prouder to be a part of her life. We also love the fact that her success throws some serious shade at the likes of haters such as Pamela Gellar, who believe Muslim girls need to be saved.

No, Pammy. Marwa doesn’t need your help. In fact, she may be the one that will help you one day, because, despite your ugly preconceived notions about Muslim girls, young ladies like Marwa are working towards providing villages with water, promoting higher education to girls in remote areas of the world, and taking on higher educational institutions one, Ivy League at a time.
MIT is one lucky institution!

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