10 Years: Reflections on A Decade of “Living the Dream” in America’s Nation’s Capital

 

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“Throw your dreams into space like a kite, and you do not know what it will bring back, a new life, a new friend, a new love, a new country.”Anais Nin

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Last Tuesday, Oct 9, 2019, I celebrated my 10th Anniversary with our beloved Washington, DC …

For it was on Oct 9, 2009, 9:30 pm, 5 months after graduating with my Masters, I moved to Washington, DC, with nothing much, other than ambition and big dreams….

It may seem like a silly tradition for me, to honor these “significant moments,” besides symptomatic of my OCD, but if I am in the area, I like to go and just take in a moment with the city by myself, so I took just a little time out to do that last week. And it was simply perfect. I guess, these small moments of reflection are important to me, because it is an essential part of my struggle and ‘journey’ … And at this moment, it just so happens to be a critical time in my life, working towards closing one major chapter, and figuring out which path or direction to go next….

In several occasions over the past few months, I’ve taken some time out to reflect on what I’ve accomplished, and where I want to go from here. It has been a blessing to have been “living the dream” …which was simply working, studying, and living in our Nation’s capital, a dream that came into fruition during my last two years in high school where I grew up in a lovely small village, called Oshkosh, Wisconsin.

I came to Washington DC, on a few occasions for internships and programs, prior to permanently moving here, but after completing my Masters, I moved here to begin creating an “identity” for myself. I wasn’t sure what that would be exactly. Just knew that it would surround the notion of being a “Public Servant.”  And my heart understood what that meant, even if it did not manifest the way I would want at times. I quickly learned it’s certainly a lifetime quest. And I understood that one doesn’t have to be present in a specific location to be a public servant, but the atmosphere here in DC provided an abundance of diverse opportunities within my field of interest…and I wanted to immerse myself in all the “action”, in a place where I knew I could potentially grow into a person devoting herself for “service to humanity.”

I always knew I wanted to be a writer and author, since I was a little girl, simply writing my thoughts in my journals. Some of which I still have with me today…. I had an “Activist” mindset upon leaving high school with interests in studying human rights issues and international affairs and my “dream job,” at the time, was to become a Diplomat. I knew I also wanted to be a scholar by the time I finished college. And I always intended to pursue my PhD, as my father encouraged me and my siblings to go “all the way” with higher education. There were many people I encountered during that pursuit, and while working on the doctorate the past eight years, that didn’t believe that I could do it, and that told me I couldn’t do it, that I didn’t fit the mold in whatever way, or didn’t have it in me ….from professors, other students, colleagues/co-workers, etc…and it was incredibly disheartening, as it was my dream…So a small part of me wanted to prove to that part of the world, that I could do it, and most importantly, I needed to prove it to myself.

When I first arrived in DC, I didn’t have any prospects, but I landed a position within a month, in customer service quality assurance, as a temp in a local government office in South East DC Anacostia. It was exactly what it was, a temp position. And it paid enough to keep me in DC while exploring other opportunities the first few months, so I will always appreciate that first DC experience.

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Meanwhile I hopped around the city, attending different networking events, fairs, think tank events etc…. Four months later, I got a position at a DC think tank, Aspen Strategy Group, coming closer to my career interests as a Brent Scowcroft Award Fellow, where I co-organized workshops with top National Security and Foreign Policy experts on American Interests in South Asia. It was a great first real gig within DC, and I cherish it for what it has done for me all these years. On top of that, to have met Khaled Hosseini, my favorite novelist, at the events in Aspen, Colorado, 9 years ago, remains something very special.

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I got a chance to tell him there, at Senator Dianne Feinstein’s Bear Paw Ranch in Aspen, Colorado, that his books inspired me to pursue graduate level research in Afghanistan and study violence against women in Pakistan for my Masters, and also begin writing my own novel, which I have been working on and off over the past 10 years as well (something I actually started that summer prior to arriving in DC!), and have set aside while I finish my doctorate (don’t worry, if my Doctoral Committee, or my Father ever read this post! 😉).  

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At Aspen, I also engaged with former Diplomats like Condi Rice and my then idol, Madeleine Albright. After about a year, I was able to land an entry level salaried position with Chemonics International, within the Afghanistan and Pakistan Division, working on a USAID-contracted program called Pakistan Firms. A month into my job there, I got the notice that I was admitted to the George Mason University School of Public Policy (at the time) ! I still remember that phone call I made to my father, the first person who I told, that I got admitted, screaming on the phone, and running around the building of my apartment in SW DC Waterfront area. And I still remember the excitement and overwhelming feeling of being accepted… I just couldn’t believe I was on the road to fulfill a dream…

Eventually, after a few years working full-time and studying part-time in the PhD program, I had to make a decision, because it was clear I did not have a supportive atmosphere at my job to work on my PhD, and of course I chose to continue with the doctorate. I cannot express in a nutshell the depth of painful challenges I faced both internally and externally from my surrounding environment …up to where I am today, so I will save that for another post, or perhaps a memoir in the future.. 😉

But I will just state, that I encountered many un-pleasantries (for the lack of a better word) that certainly challenged the formation of the identity I wanted to create for myself, building the character of a “public servant.” And at the time, it felt like there wasn’t enough emphasis on this in the DC area, about the importance of “character building” in leadership. And I butted heads with some infectious negative encounters and emotions I now abhor and try to avoid, including a lot of unnecessary jealousy, competition, intimidation, rather than camaraderie, community, and collaboration among like-minded people… and it continued to be a very difficult arena to navigate especially as a woman of color, in spite of having infiltrated some networks and established connections. It didn’t come naturally to me…this “Hollywood of Politics” or the “who you know, and how can they best benefit from you” etc etc, kind of norm or attitude that rubs off here when trying to break the ice in DC…but I remained proactive and vigilant and persistent in other ways that helped build my stamina to take whatever comes and learn and grow from it. Sometimes those challenges were confronted with other women of color as well. Which is the hardest. Especially the very dispiriting “jealously factor.” It was incredibly disheartening, because you see these amazing women as potential mentors, bridges and collaborators, but your aspirations and goals are unfortunately viewed and interpreted as a threat, instead.   

In all of these professional experiences, especially in the field of public policy, communication was an important skill. However, my anxiety levels were off the charts. I knew I struggled with anxiety before even coming to this city, coming into the DC political environment, a tight-knit community where everyone knew each other, and where personalities matter…And I knew this perhaps impacted others’ perception and reception of me. …And I knew I struggled with depression, but I didn’t quite fully comprehend it, and hence, nor could others around me. I still had to keep treading forward, obviously there was no other choice, and I realized the only way to overcome, was to push through it and expose myself…

I only started publicly, openly, more blatantly speaking about my depression and anxiety in 2015, when I “came out” in my social networks starting with Facebook. And eventually, a few months later, started this blog to help myself cope with it, while I pursue my doctorate and other activities, and it became a place to practice my creative writing skills as well. I also think that blogging produces a nice feeling of accomplishing something outside of the doctorate, that is necessary and helpful to have going, to help your professional or personal development. But just in general getting something accomplished, whether it’s a blog post, or a painting, or a poem, or an essay, that has nothing to do with your actual PhD research can really help you on your PhD journey

So here I am now, 10 years later… and still confronting great uncertainty… still a “work in progress” in several ways….And admittedly, it has been quite difficult to write this post…because I wanted so badly to be at a different place by now. We all hope that by 10 years time, there would be certain positive changes in our lives. In my previous post last year, I noted my hopes for 2019 to be “The Year” for me….The year I’d earn those three letters behind my name… and fulfill my primary dream … but you really cannot predict the “ending” date of a doctorate degree…just work towards it… and at times it becomes sort of “forbidden” or taboo to even mention it…

For many years I thought that telling myself that “I haven’t accomplished anything in my life,” and concentrating only on identifying my weaknesses, and fixing those weaknesses, instead of appreciating my strengths, would push me to accomplish things. But I don’t believe that is healthy at all, and I would highly advise against that, especially for someone going through severe depression. We should always work towards bettering ourselves, but we need to take time to also appreciate the beauty within us, and I didn’t do enough of that, at times when I needed to the most.

And the truth is different from what I concocted in my head. There is certainly so much I can be proud of for the past 10 years in both big and small ways. We want to believe that as long as we are not moving backwards, we are doing okay. But compared to where I was when I first arrived in DC, I have come quite the distance. I mean…five months out of my Masters, I came here, and proactively threw myself into a lot of anxiety-prone situations (despite having severe anxiety and depression beneath the high hopes and dreams) during different professional opportunities in the beginning, and well into my first several years of my doctorate studies…and even still today….

My anxiety levels were so high at the time, I couldn’t even articulate full sentences, even among my acquaintances and peers. I couldn’t speak with clarity, I couldn’t form one sentence without stuttering or breathing improperly, and within an intellectual, academic, or professional conversation, among co-workers, friends/peers, colleagues and even in personal situations. Something wasn’t connecting in the brain. It wasn’t just confidence, as some people thought, it was severe anxiety.  And later, I would constantly obsess over what I would have said, and how I would have said it, repeatedly ruminating as intrusive thoughts, a clear symptom of my OCD. It was my anxiety that had created a stutter-like speech pattern. Something I had experienced often throughout my life since early childhood… But It was this anxiety that made me unable to formulate and communicate in the potential I knew I had. With the exception of academic presentations or speeches, where I wrote things down and just read it. And in turn, it was my OCD and depression that managed to sustain the shame over it. Over time of course, it became better, with practice.

I hadn’t thought about this until recently… One symptom of my OCD is the significance I place in numbers in practically everything in my life. It’s ironic because I do qualitative research. 😊 But it’s really crazy how things are interconnected…and come full circle at times… It has also been 10 years since I  graduated from my Masters, at the University of Pittsburgh Graduate School of Public and International Affairs… April 2009. And 5 months later, I moved here to DC…And about one year ago from yesterday, I arrived in Pakistan for my second field assessment, embarking on what would become some of the most important experiences of my life. I found so many other “full circle” moments from this past summer on various activities too…

… I waited several days from my DC Anniversary date to post this blog piece (which is turning out to be a lot longer than what I intended, as usual) …because I was on a mission to finish the transcription of all my interviews and data for analysis. I wanted to be able to share these 10-year reflections, when I had some, whatever small, but significant milestone to be proud of….

And even the smallest moments of progress are important. I have now, one year from when I started my second fieldwork trip to Pakistan, transcribed a grand total of 178 interview and focus group transcriptions…(with some focus groups and group interviews counted as 1),…these were interviews among South Asia security and development experts and practitioners, and rural development stakeholders across Pakistan, in the Washington DC area, and remotely for Afghanistan…with over 200 audio recordings of visitations, meetings, interviews, and conversations,….meeting over 200 people, in my exploratory and second in-depth field assessments in Pakistan. So it is possible I might have something to say about the fascinating “aid-web” relational dynamics and “network effects” of international development policy interventions in Pakistan and Afghanistan.

I’m so grateful to the participants of my study to allow me to record… listening to them again brought me back to some of the most beautiful memories of my life so far… and it all still feels so fresh …Listening to the audios for most of the interviews conducted, were important for many reasons, for the analysis of course, but also to suppress and silence those voices that were telling me I’m not enough,… I’m a fraud,… I’m an imposter, (and all these years those same voices creep up) … at a critical phase of my doctorate research, which makes sprinting to the finish line of a monstrous feat like the PhD, ten times more difficult than it already is…, And interestingly, it was something that no one in Pakistan made me feel, … a country that’s apparently “suspicious of foreigners”…

So if it wasn’t for hearing their voices, I would have to listen to the other voice inside me sending me negative messages of doubt, shame, and worthlessness, to bring me down at this crucial moment in my life…As I noted in previously posts, it was a challenging transition back from the field.. and although it was a painstaking process to transcribe, it was those voices that I heard in the recordings that help silence that voice inside that would have stopped me from making critical progress in the program. For that reason, in and of itself, this milestone was an important one for me

And I really believe, the key to succeeding in a doctorate is being able to celebrate the smallest of the successes… The smallest of milestones, in piecemeal, each step of the way. And for me it was really important for my analysis to complete the transcriptions of all of my interviews and visitations and more, including notes and Urdu translations. Which were even more tough. Making sense of a lot of unstructured data is very challenging, but to have all such data in place, and something that you can claim as your original data set, is a pretty amazing feeling.  

It has been a painful process in some ways. But in other ways, I got the opportunity to be intimate and close to the words of my informants and to process all that carefully… Although it makes it slightly harder to build that necessary objective academic distance, it enriched my soul, and was an important step in the process. I understand that one has to distance themselves from their data and ensure that they establish a sense of objective and unbiased analysis/interpretations of it, and that is a challenging task based on my ‘positionality’ in this case, but it can be done, and it can still prove to be valuable research.

Even listening to myself in the interviews was surprisingly empowering…some of the earlier interviews I conducted in DC and the exploratory fieldwork reflected the anxiety I always had in speech, and it was obvious that I was a little shaky and nervous at times, initially. But by the time I got into my later interviews, I was asking all the right questions and speaking in a way and engaging in way that I never thought I could 10 years ago, that I never could do just sitting in a classroom…

And this was very important for me to hear. It revealed a transformation within me I would not have known. I honestly think it is the greatest personal achievement for me. Because, although the anxiety is still there, to be able to articulate myself in a way I just couldn’t before, is a great personal accomplishment. So it’s important to celebrate these types of milestones, to celebrate your growth that you recognize in these unique ways

Even though I do not see a light just yet…. I’m running towards it … and I am determined to find it… and it doesn’t matter whether I see it soon…because this whole time, I was always in it for the journey… and I’m getting just that… the journey…. whatever good and bad that comes from it…

………

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So on Tuesday, Oct 9, 2019, per tradition, I went into the city and gave my Salaams to the great Washington Monument once again…on my 10th Anniversary… There was no construction around the monument like the previous year…. And it was a perfect, cool, and crisp autumn day. Families were out there with their loved ones, friends among friends, lovers with their lovers, children screaming and running around the large, strange-looking, yet sophisticated block of cement, pointing towards the clear night sky … 

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And I came there to have a moment…a moment with my DC…at the best moment…. When the sun was setting right above the Lincoln Memorial to one side, and the moon slowly creeping up on the other…

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I stood there, leaning against the great and still incredibly unyielding, and breathtaking Washington Monument, despite having done this so many times in the past 10 years, and closed my eyes to really absorb the moment. And I wanted to know if it felt the same… being there.. as it did 10 years ago…. And it did. It hasn’t changed a bit. It still has the same enamoring feeling of awe... I watched the glorious moon gradually reach it’s evening radiance. And the sun descend as the alizarin crimson enveloped the iconic arena, where several historic marches and events have occurred and continue to take place today….

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And as I inhaled the invigorating freshness of the moment, the wind gently blew through my long thick, entangled black hair… in a serene, empowering moment unraveling it as it was trying to liberate me…

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At that moment, I was not only reflecting on my time in DC the past 10 years, but I was reminded of those incomparable sunsets and magnificent shimmering moons I encountered during my recent fieldwork in Pakistan

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In Larkana District, Sindh, Pakistan, February 2019

 

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And I was wearing that colorful shawl that day on purpose, the very shawl that I wrapped around me during both my exploratory and in-depth fieldwork trips in Pakistan, everywhere from Islamabad, Peshawar, Lahore, Karachi, and interior Sindh… It appeared in several photos I captured during my travels around Pakistan… My big sister bought that for me several years ago…. That shawl traveled with me from one corner of Pakistan to another, from the historic Khyber Pass Gate in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province …to the Nagar Parker hills in District Tharparkar of the Sindh Province.

 

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The Khyber Pass Gate, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Pakistan, December 2017

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The Nagar Parkar Hills, District Tharparkar, Sindh, February 2019

………

The journey of the doctorate and the journey the past few years through my fieldwork, was inconceivably empowering in a way difficult to express … And transcribing all of that interview data was as if it was confirming and polishing that “empowerment.”

I have learned that many people want to complete their doctorate in the shortest time possible. And I understand that. Completing any PHD is certainly an amazing accomplishment. But I have to say that I believe doing fieldwork is on a whole different league in the social sciences that still doesn’t get the level of appreciation it deserves. Fieldwork is a visceral part of your journey that enlightens your senses in ways that other research methods simply cannot.

As I said, I have always been in it for the journey. So with whatever “perceived stigma” there is out there for how long it takes to pursue a dream like this, especially as women, and especially as women coming from certain cultures that socially construct this as an “unconventional path,” especially when single and ‘unhitched’… it undermines the value and struggle of this pursuit..

I have been fighting for something for quite some time…and while sometimes the fighting is simply to survive on a daily basis… we want to be able to put ourselves in a position to make a difference … to contribute in whatever way we can …to something bigger than us… and the most important thing in my journey, was to develop the necessary character to carry me through, for whatever it meant to be a “public servant.” And having a “growth mindset” and “evolving” is never easy and if we are not feeling the pain, we know we are not growing, or changing

I have transformed a great deal since 10 years ago, as my love and relationship with Washington DC has grown… but I don’t think I have grown as much as I have in the past year, which has been the most trying year… in the final stretch of the doctorate… But we have to look at it as a reminder that change is happening, the inward revolution is emerging, and the only option is to embrace it, however painful it may be…  

I am only beginning to see and appreciate within myself, exactly how much I have changed, grown, and developed as a human being,… And of course I know what’s in my heart, and those dreams and those struggles continue… to prepare you for what’s coming your way…

I know that I will end 2019… strong… with whatever progress I can make on the dissertation….as a primary goal….and be able to fulfill that dream with patience and perseverance.  

My relationship with DC has certainly tested me in many ways. Indeed it has become a “second home” for me. I have had numerous challenges, but it was all part of the experience. I say often that I was pursuing the doctorate “for the journey” whenever so many people will tell me to “get it done” and “as fast as possible.” And Although I am ready to “get it done”… the reasoning for my sprint to the finish now, is not only for the sake of establishing a sense of livelihood beyond the “Poor Hungry Doctor,” but because I know now more than ever, that I not only have the potential, but I have more than that…and I know that there is so much within me, ready to burst, that I want to share and give to the world, not only from the substantive knowledge that I have gained, but from learning the nuts and bolts of the “process” of getting there…

So I will raise this carton of coconut water sitting beside me as I write this… to 10 Years… to fighting in/with my beloved DC … to being “In it for The Journey” …. to fresh and new beginnings… to being a “Student for Life”….and  to “sharing new knowledge” and “building bridges” …

I am not sure where I will be next year…although DC will always have a place in my heart, and continue to be that “second home” for me… I am certain I will find a way to “be present” if my service is needed…

I anticipate that the year 2020 will be a great year of hope and success for all of us, at a collective level, especially if America is able to grasp the “window of opportunity” it currently holds, and obtain their first truly progressive President of United States that can turn things around for the future generations…

And you know, with all the significance I give to “Numbers,” in my life…. I sometimes forget to count correctly….  

Because It is actually just the beginning of My 10th year in DC. 😉 I can rationalize that for my OCD mind, that I need to finish “it” within this 10 year mark, and that’ll work for preventing and halting disappointments…

Godwilling, year 10, will be a year of great progress for the Warrior Queen ETK….. And I know if this one chapter closes, it will only be the beginning of something even more challenging and magical for the Warrior Queen to conquer

I don’t want to jinx anything…but I will continue to have the High Hopes…as 2020 will be  a “Milestone year” for our collective and personal stories, and I can’t wait to join the action … wherever it’s written for me….

Thank you for reading these 4500+ words!

And thank you to all those who have been part of my journey, and those who have been with me during the successes and the hardships. I won’t forget it.

 

Yes: I am a dreamer. For a dreamer is one who can only find his way by moonlight, and his punishment is that he sees the dawn before the rest of the world.

– Oscar Wilde

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Peace, Warmth, Love and Blessings,

Your Elsa

Warrior KQueen

 

“Only from the heart can you touch the sky” – Rumi 

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