‘Honoring’ Milestones and a Dream of 20 Years…

“If light is in your heart, you will find your way home.” – Rumi

A little over a month ago, I finally started my new adventure, after completing my PhD, at an amazing non-profit that does great work for enhancing educational opportunities for diverse populations around the world.

That week, I intended to write this post on my blog, but I decided to get mentally, physically, and emotionally settled first for this “new life,” which remains a work in progress. And for many reasons, every time I tried to write about it, I was blocked, mentally, physically, and emotionally in a way I have never been before. I have been going through a lot of different competing and conflicting emotions since Defense and since Graduation, and I believe I will have to try to understand and navigate them for a long time going forward.

I started the new assignment, the day after President’s day, in February and coincidentally, it was a special week for me, because of what it meant to me twenty years ago.

From Feb 19-24, I honored the twentieth anniversary of my first encounter with our nation’s capital, Washington, DC.

It was 20 years ago when I participated in the National Youth Leadership Forum (NYLF) on Defense, Intelligence, & Diplomacy (Feb 19-24, 2002). Selected my senior year of high school, in Oshkosh, WI, it was the first time I traveled to DC.

And it was that moment when the dreams began: to live, work, and study at our nation’s Capital. I was blessed with several opportunities over the past 15 years. It was a special conference because I was among 4 selected to lay the wreath at the Arlington National Cemetery, Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, wreath-laying ceremony, through an essay contest. I wrote about civic engagement as a Muslim American post 9/11, five months after that horrific event. Over the years, I have been trying to recover the essay or the newsletter that included it, but they didn’t have it when I asked a few years ago. I remember being shocked when they announced my name among over 150 high school students at that Forum.

Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, Arlington National Cemetary, Wreath Laying ceremony, Feb 23, 2002.

Above is that photo which I shared in some other past posts like here: http://www.warrioretkqueen.com/to-hijab/

And here:

Twenty Years…

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I returned 20 years later on President’s day, February 22, 2022, to salute the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. (The day after that was my first day at my new position, precisely the day I had that ceremony twenty years ago (Feb 23, 2002)). And in that moment when I returned for the first time in 20 years, I witnessed the exact same wreath-laying ceremony for four other students. It was a very surreal moment of nostalgia and reflection for me, going full circle now, as I continue my responsibility and role as an educator & leader.

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I shared the NYLF from two decades ago on social media that week and now, here on my blog, because it truly was a defining moment before embarking on my dreams for higher education & public service, a challenging journey that may involve alternative paths than envisioned, but equally rewarding nonetheless.

That moment at the NYLF, and the NYLF experience as a whole, had a tremendous impact on my goals to put myself in the position to serve, and it is why I returned at this transitional moment of my life.

In previous years, I had been celebrating DC around October 11th, when I first permanently made the move to DC, as my second home.

Here are some of those posts: 20172018….2019

It was nice to go back to some of those posts and revisit my reflections as I continue to reflect on how I want to serve going forward. But my real first encounter with the city was 20 years ago that week. And I wanted to spend a little bit of my time that week in DC, to mark a milestone moment for me.  I took a walk around the National Mall area that week…just reminiscing, and reflecting on that experience and how I felt at that moment. Bits and pieces of the memories, flashbacks, and feelings I had that week, came back to me that day, but I also realized they may be fading away too.

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I referenced my relationship with DC in a few posts in the past. The most recent was in honor of the 20-year mark in my current transition: http://www.warrioretkqueen.com/twenty-years/

In that post, I talked about how significant the 20-year mark was for me… and for various reasons, and “this moment” in general (2021 to 2022) has been marked at a personal and professional level now with my Dissertation completion, my PhD Graduation, pretty soon my high school graduation reunion, my first publication, and for the current moment, my first assignment post-pHD.

On Valentines Day this year, after another big interview, I decided to visit DC for a moment to express my love and appreciation. 🙂 Here is me at the Washington monument:

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In a recent conversation during an interview, I was informed that I am officially a “Washingtonian” and my eyes lit up with joy.  I have considered DC my second home. Like with any “home,” there is happiness, and there is pain. (Kabhi Khushi, Kabhi Gham – the name of a hit Bollywood SRK classic :)). And I’ve been in that “pursuit of happyness.” And I think this pursuit is ongoing. Sometimes it is ongoing because we still just don’t know what elements in life will truly make us happy. 

I will always love the mid-west and my childhood home and now have the experience of driving there and driving back to DC area, perhaps because of the Pandemic era, but I was so happy to hear someone say that about me. There is so much more I want to know about this city, so many more places I didn’t get to explore, and I would love to explore the world as I am based here, going forward.

Of course, I haven’t been with Washington, all these 20 years, but I have held her in my heart all that time, ever since that moment, hoping I would have the opportunity to come back. And I did everything I could to find some opportunities, after college with the American University, Washington Semester Program, working with the FSI Association for Diplomatic Studies and Training, and then a semester program during my Masters, through University of Pittsburgh, GSPIA in DC, where I worked under the Ambassador at the Embassy of Pakistan. When I moved to Washington, DC, without any opportunity, I eventually became a Scowcroft Fellow at the Aspen Strategy group, and then from there had various other opportunities.

I reviewed the NYLF in my memory book I talked about in a previous post, a fifty-page, 20 chapters, memoir I wrote 20 years ago about various topics, at the age of 17, for my high school creative writing class. And I looked through the album of photos that I created for the NYLF experience and my first visits around the DC area. I kept the ticket to Washington, DC all this time… that first one…. I happened to have it in my possession at the moment. Below is a photo of my first ticket to DC, which I preserved along with a picture, letters, pamphlets, etc from that experience.

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One of the things that came to mind from reflecting on that experience was something that the instructor for our specific cohort told us on our first day of the conference. The instructor advised the students in attendance (mostly Seniors and juniors in High School) to take this NYLF opportunity to “reinvent” yourself. For instance, If you weren’t an extrovert before, and that’s who we want to be, be that now, among those who you don’t know….

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(You see Vice President on the name tag in the photo above, because I was chosen to be the Vice President of the United States in my group of 20 people at the conference, part of the White House simulation exercise… :))

I find it interesting that I came upon that particular reflection on the Instructor’s advice, especially because of my desire, since defending my dissertation and graduating, for a positive change in my life, forward… during a difficult transition and this 20 year mark. Several months ago, I read the book By Dr. Benjamin Hardy called, “Personality isn’t Permanent: Break Free from Self-Limiting Beliefs and Rewrite Your Story”. It’s a good read about the importance of internal transformation and having a growth mindset. If you have read any of my social media posts or blog posts here, you know that personal development and self-help are really important to me.

I think I do have a growth mindset but sometimes I can become attached to past traumas and challenges, and it stays with me. This is what I have been noticing the past few months….

So I have been learning at this point in my life to let go. Keep the elements of past experiences that can help me grow, and let go of the elements that only bring negativity and decreased self-worth and pain. It is by far not an easy task. But I guess it’s consoling to know that everyone carries baggage with them, even when they move on to a new chapter in life.

“Life is like riding a bicycle. To keep your balance, you must keep moving.”

-Albert Einstein

I have always been afraid to ride a bicycle around the DC area, but maybe I will try one of these days. 🙂

I don’t know if I will be here, in Washington, DC  in 20 years, when I am 57 years old. If I will walk up to the Washington Monument and lay a flower beside it on Valentine’s Day. I don’t know if I will be alive. I don’t know if I will be here, but I know how quick the 20 years have gone by and who I wanted to be by now… And like I stated in a previous post, it would be important to live in the persona that you want to have in the future… now.

I have been happy to hear from other people recently how they have seen so much growth in me. It makes me emotional, partly because that desire for growth and change has been there for over 20 years of my life… and for many of those 20 years, I have been stuck in perfectionism paralysis, as I have felt when trying to write this post and others. Just to give you a glimpse, a small glimpse of my perfectionism, it seems that I always have to make it appear in a particular order, the submission of my blog posts on here, and it doesn’t have to be that way…

In my life, I have never been as lost as I have been at this moment. I guess it is normal for big transitions. I mean, I spent three decades of education, and now I am no longer officially with a “student” status, even as I consider myself a “student for life.”

It is why, as I have said many times before, it is so important to celebrate your milestones and the moments yourself, even if no one is celebrating you.

Indeed, it is very difficult to “start over” in life. You think that moving into the next chapter, you will take everything that you achieved from the last one where you grew as a scholar, as a professional, as a person…. And you do. But not everything will be applied, come together, enlighten you, and hit you, in the right ways, magically and immediately as you immerse yourself in the “new life.” And that is not a “given.” Depending on your circumstances, nothing can prepare you for that understanding. It hits you like an Avalanche. There is a need to be patient. To understand that sometimes you have to accept the “ZIG-Zagging path” in your career trajectory, and most importantly, know that you are growing nonetheless, even if you have to step backward, before moving forward. That doesn’t make you a “less than.” Enhancing your “identity capital” in one way that is different from your expectations, does not mean that you are erasing the “identity capital” you earned from the previous chapter.

I am writing this and this is stinging my soul so much, because I have not fully accepted this truth just yet. It is too strong and too painful at the moment, especially as someone with OCD that makes it hard to be flexible in your mind about life plans, even though you always have been flexible, naturally, and you have to be. The game that is played in the mind operates differently and perhaps a little slower with respect to connecting the dots. But I think it is important for me to understand and write this and to keep reflecting on this and as Ramadan has started, ask God to help me develop the patience I need to accept the forces and things I cannot control.

Ultimately, there are some power moves I wanted to make at the beginning of this year or even last year and couldn’t do it due to a very strong “Perfectionism Paralysis,” a hugely important topic which I will write about in more detail in another post. I have touched on it briefly in the past, but I want to dedicate an entire blog post to this because of my desperate yearning to be “free” of it.

Finally, I just want to state that we have to learn to risk significant challenges connected to jealousy, resentment, buree nazar (evil eye), envy, and more, when we celebrate and honor all these pivotal moments in our lives, and we cannot let those feelings/actions/inactions/behaviors from peers, friends, colleagues, family, people who we have loved and admired and supported ourselves over the years, prevent us from uniquely honoring and celebrating our moments, empowering ourselves, and pushing forward to harnessing our incredible potential.

I confess that has been part of my own struggle. One can say that this is partly perceived, but if you have any perspective, or insight, on human cognitions, you know that there is so much reality to this, an inconvenient, uncomfortable, and unfortunate truth, and it’s growing with our increasingly virtual world which I will discuss another time.

I am also going to continue writing about the 20-year mark in some posts to follow…. You will see another post soon sharing reflections from my 20-year high school graduation anniversary. I have some thoughts and reflections there about High School, the different levels of academic life, the social phenomenon that begins with High School and extends to every layer and domain, and more…

I believe I have fully embraced my new, challenging, & dynamic role, here in Washington, DC, and I am excited for what more it will teach me.

I won’t let go of who I am as a scholar, writer, and academic. I simply cannot. It has been a core part of my being, my ambitions and goals have centered on that for a long time, since high school, …but I can say it feels like I am hanging on to it by a thread right now, and I just hope it is a feeling and one that will pass.

The key to keeping our “identity capital” is “consistency”. Staying consistent and doing and being who we are. Whatever time I have on the side needs to be devoted to that… and I am the only one who can continue to harness and nurture it… It will be even harder now, but I will never stop even if I am not recognized or acknowledged as such.

I have felt that even in the my highest moments when I deserve some credit or acknowledgment, I am invisible. It’s hurtful but I am evolving and learning and I hope this pain can turn into meaningful action. I am also open, however difficult it may be, to understand its connection to my past traumas.

I will write here more often because I am not living if I am suppressing the creativity within me. It does not matter if the world around me doesn’t understand. If I seek for an understanding of my writing, of my words, I may never evolve, and I will continue to be paralyzed. It does not matter if our world does not approve of our dreams and aspirations.

I simply cannot sustain the continued broken promises to myself of all I want from my life, to forge ahead like a warrior through the gauntlet of evil eyes upon me, watching, but saying nothing when I suffer, resenting me when I succeed and share my successes, and waiting for me to fail, and feeling pleasure and satisfaction when I am unable to break through the ice and push through the bricks.

Naturally, I am human, and I seek connection, belonging, and empowerment, and with you all. I wonder sometimes, what I have done to be deprived of such. What I have done to deserve the hate and resentment.

It is a tragedy when a women empowering herself, uplifting herself, celebrating herself, honoring herself, the way she knows she deserves it, especially when she is hanging by a thread, trying to survive in a world that hasn’t been the most welcoming to her, is perceived as lacking humility. There are times to stay humble, there are times to step forward and claim your victory. Even the smallest of victories.

I may still be figuring out who I am and that is okay. But I do know that I am an intellectual, a philosopher, a social scientist, an academic…among other things. Most importantly, I remain a woman of passion, compassion, dreams, ambitions, with so much drive and determination to offer and contribute in the short time we have in this world. I may not be ready for many things in my new chapter, in opening this new chapter of my life, largely because I have not been able to fully heal from the previous one. But I handled it pretty well so far, and like with every milestone, we have to forge ahead, even when we don’t think we are fully ready.

“To practice courage, compassion, & connection is to look at life and the people around us and say I’m all in.” – Dr. Brene Brown

“To be nobody-but-yourself – in a world which is doing its best, night and day, to make you everybody else – means to fight the hardest battle which any human being can fight; and never stop fighting.”– E.E. Cummings

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I remain with gratitude to be here, to be able to continue “Living the Dream….”

The dream of living, working, and studying at our nation’s capital.

Even as I know perhaps among some, I may be unwelcome…. I think I needed the experiences, to be able to open myself up to more possibilities beyond what this “second home” has offered me…in the future.

Indeed, I have enjoyed the start of my first post, in my post-PHD life. And I am sincerely grateful I get to be able to contribute to initiatives and programs similar to the ones I had in Academia myself.

I conclude with this final reflection…. as I was thinking about a few days ago, and it hit me. This transition has been so difficult because I had to go from having the primary mindset of what Academia as a system, as an institution, can do for me, to what I can do for Academia in a role that is primarily service-oriented, where the priority isn’t my own research and advancement, the priority is enhancing the kinds of opportunities I had myself in Academia, for others, and also for many around the world who have limitted opportunities of educational and leadership advancement. I did have multiple service roles in my graduate experiences, particularly in my doctorate, and it is a service to make original contributions to the literature but to go from that to a predominantly service role while putting your research agenda to the side, is a difficult thing to do as a passionate scientist and scholar yourself. But many do it, even in academic roles.

I am still learning and growing and evolving on my perspective on this. And I think if I take it from the perspective of service, it is truly the most humbling endeavor that supports the goal to build our character as public servants, and that will enrich the academic contributions I will continue to make as a scholar for the rest of my life.

Because, as a reminder…

“Education is one thing no one can take away from you.”Elin Nordegren.

Please remember to follow your heart and follow your dreams, even if very few are behind you, and opportunities will unfold.

Stay resilient. Stay Empowered. Stay Connected.

With peace, warmth, and blessings,

Your Sister, Dr. Elsa T. Khwaja

Warrior KQueen

“She wasn’t looking for a Knight. She was looking for a Sword.” – Atticus

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