by mona saleh
Fast forward 8 years, and I will graduate from medical school this spring. I am currently interviewing for residency positions, and one interview question struck a chord with me. My interviewer asked me to tell her about my childhood experiences, and then she asked, “You were such a rock star in high school; why did you choose to go to Rutgers?” I admit that question halted me. I responded that, indeed, I had done so well in high school, but Rutgers just always seemed like the only option for me. I explored that further. It really doesn’t make sense that I did not apply to a single Ivy League school, nor was I encouraged by anyone (family, friends, teachers, guidance counselors) to do so. This question is even more perplexing considering that Princeton University is only 10-15 minutes away from where I grew up and went to high school. I obviously knew about the Ivies and the types of respectable education and traditions they had....but somehow they just didn’t seem like they were for me. Rather, it didn’t seem like a girl like me could even apply to attend there. I hadn’t known any brown woman to attend an Ivy League school. Even though I had a classmate who applied and ultimately attended Princeton, it just seemed like it was more for someone like her than it was for someone like me.
What does it mean to be someone like me? It means to be brown, to have immigrant parents, and back when I was a girl, to try to be as quiet as possible and not make waves in my family or my community. It meant I was not empowered and nobody cared to empower me to reach higher than expected. I wasn’t seen as someone worthy of empowering...at least that is the only way I can explain why no one would encourage a valedictorian to apply to an upper tier school. It never hurts to apply, even when you are almost sure you won’t get in. I learned that during my time in college, but I wish someone had gone out of their way (or even just done their job) to empower me when I did not see power in myself. It is because of this life experience that I know the glass ceiling is real. If you cannot see people like you attending a certain university or holding a certain position, it becomes near impossible to believe that you are even “allowed” to do it.
I have tried long and hard to think of an analogy for others to relate to how the glass ceiling felt for me, and I have found only a very crude one. In any public space, there are usually two bathrooms: a men’s bathroom and a women’s bathroom. As a woman, I naturally gravitate towards the women’s bathroom, and I venture to say that most women I know identify with this experience. Now, what if I told you the women’s bathroom has a huge line and the men’s bathroom has no line (seriously a problem sometimes)...then would you go to the men’s bathroom? Or would you just suck it up and wait in the huge line. I know I would wait in the line. Now what if I told you the men’s bathroom was more hygienic, bigger, and just all around a better bathroom. As a woman, would you then go into the men’s bathroom? I know my thought would be, “Well, that’s all well and good, but it just simply is not the bathroom intended for me...even if it is better and I deserve to go to a good bathroom.” I dare say most women I know would think the same thing. The fact is, if you are raised to simply go to the women’s bathroom because you are taught that is the one for you and you only ever see men going into the men’s bathroom, you will stay with the status quo. You will shut up and go to the women’s bathroom, and it will seem like there isn’t even a choice to go to the men’s bathroom if you are a woman. Even if you are the most qualified, deserving woman, you will STILL go to the women’s bathroom.
That is what the glass ceiling feels like. It feels like you don’t even have a choice to apply to an Ivy League school or run for president or ask for a certain promotion or raise. It feels like there is no other option. Nothing about glass ceilings is optional when you are experiencing it.