Layla Abdulla, the former editor-in-chief of the International Writers’ Blog, is from Wilmington, Massachusetts. Even prior to arriving at Brown, Layla recognized that she has a deep interest in studying human health from both a humanitarian, social aspect and a deeply biological approach. With Brown’s unique curriculum, she was able to bridge these two passions and concentrate in Health and Human Biology, with a specific focal theme of social context of health and disease. Layla has many fond memories at both Brown and IWB, but she is on the last few steps leading to graduation and a new stage of her life. Continue reading this interview to discover more about Layla’s experiences at Brown, her cathartic reflections on the past four years, and what she looks forward to in the future!
Where is home to you, and what do you consider ‘home’ to be?
I kind of lived all over the place, so home has never been one fixed point for me. At this point, I would say that it is where my family is – that is, where my mother is, where my brother is, where my sister is – and they are currently in Wilmington, Massachusetts. So, at this moment of time, that is where I consider home to be!
How do you believe that the concept of ‘home’ has shifted for you?
I was born and raised in Georgia for a really long time, and so for a while that was the only home that I ever really knew. But, for middle school and high school, I moved to Pakistan, and so that became my home. However, even there I was a bit confused because I was battling two different kinds of identities – it was this ‘American’ identity versus this other traditional, more family-oriented Pakistani identity. And then, I moved back here to the US thinking that I’ll just ‘settle right back into the American flow and lifestyle’ easily, but it was then that I paused to think about how I am a mixture of people now – I realized that my identity is kind of crossed by many different aspects and that there is not one particular group that I fit in, and not one definition of home that I prescribe to. So yes, my definition of home has changed a lot; I have become very comfortable with the idea of it not being a singular location – it can be a group of people that I consider to be my family.
Do you speak any other languages other than English?
Have you ever had trouble with traversing between the two languages, and going back and forth between them?
In Pakistan, it’s more of a mixture of English and Urdu in your normal casual conversation with people. There are some words that you just cannot translate, so every sentence is not a singular English or Urdu sentence. And ever since coming over here I have always been reminded that I have to stick to one language, but there are tons of words that both sound better and make more sense to me in Urdu. Nevertheless, it has been kind of awesome, having this secret language that others don’t understand!
What is your field of study? And how has Brown’s open curriculum/exploring other fields impacted your decision in declaring a concentration?
I am concentrating in Health and Human Biology with a theme of the social context of health and disease. When I came in as a freshman and thought of studying a health-related concentration, I was questioning whether I wanted to go down the scientific, heavy-biology route of health or if I wanted to go through the more ‘social’ kind of route – like the public health concentration. I always knew that I was interested in studying health-related fields, but I did not know whether I wanted to go down the social way or the scientific way. However, Brown had this perfect concentration that combined them both – and that is my current concentration! I was fortunately able to learn more about it really early on, and that allowed me to decide that that was what I wanted to do here at Brown. Additionally, I also feel like the open curriculum has been a very big part of my concentration, since Health and Human Biology really encourages and heavily depends on a multidisciplinary academic approach. To meet my concentration requirements, I had to explore all of these different departments; I took classes in sociology, public health, and even psychology and all sorts of other interesting fields. The open curriculum and the structure of my concentration forced me to do that, and I absolutely love that!
And why did you choose to study at Brown?
Honestly speaking, the way that I ended up at Brown was really random. In my high school, they usually encourage students to apply early decision because they had this idea that it ‘increases your chances of getting in’ – which is not actually true, but it was what people thought that you should do in order to get into college. And so, at the time, I was trying to decide which college to apply to, and I think college rankings had come out very recently around that time. I remember my friend mentioning how it was interesting that Brown’s ranking had shot up significantly since last year, and how she also mentioned that Brown would be a ‘good fit for me’, which made me feel even more interested in applying – which eventually ended up with me asking myself, ‘okay, why don’t I just apply there’? Which – surprisingly – led to me randomly creating my Brown application. And it was during the time between application submissions and the early decision notification that I started realizing how perfect this school was for me, and that this could have been just some other random school but I had actually fallen in love with it. I even started dreading decision day because as time passed, I had become more and more invested in Brown as a school. But eventually, everything turned out okay, and now I am here!
What clubs and/or student organizations have you been a part of during your time at Brown? (With the exception of IWB!)
Well, other than the International Writers’ Blog, I have been a part of a couple of organizations throughout my time at Brown. For example, I have been a part of a student organization called SHAPE (Sexual Health Advocacy through Peer Education) for a year and a half now. SHAPE is partnered with Planned Parenthood, and what we do is go to local high school classrooms and we facilitate lessons regarding sexual health, sex and society, and other similar topics, which has been a really cool experience. I am also a Meiklejohn this year, so I essentially act as a peer advisor for a group of freshman students here at Brown, and I try to help them in the best way that I can! I have also been a teaching assistant for a couple of classes, namely Biotechnology in Medicine – which I have done for two semesters – and for a class on disability called Pathology to Power. Other than that, I have also been doing research in a Women and Infants Hospital ever since I was a sophomore. There, I worked with pediatric patients, particularly preterm infants – which means that I have been surrounded by cute little babies since sophomore year!
How long have you been in IWB as of now? How has that entire experience shaped your time at Brown?
I joined IWB as a sophomore – initially as a staff writer and editor – and after a year I eventually became the Editor-in-chief for two years. So all in all, I have been a part of IWB for three years now, and I honestly love it; I think of everyone there as my little family. We all come from different countries, belong to different citizenships, speak different languages, and have all of these heterogeneous backgrounds, and you would think that that would make it all the more harder for us to connect. But somehow, I think it makes us all a little closer with one another, since we all bring so many interesting diverse perspectives, and we all sort of learn how to bond over all of these differences. So, I really do value IWB. It provides this space on campus for people like me that do not really belong to one particular community, and it reiterates the idea that it is okay to be diverse and to belong to a bajillion different groups! Not to mention the moments that always reminded me of why I stuck with IWB. Whether it be the small bonding event we had a couple of months ago, or the weekly meetings, IWB brought me close with a lot of people.
What is a class that has riveted you, changed your thought process, and/or gave you new perspectives?
Pathology to Power! The class is in the public health department, and it is about topics regarding disability. It is one of the most amazing classes that I have ever taken here at Brown, and it taught me about a community that I did not really know much about or was really familiar with. It was also a very encouraging environment; a lot of us had different levels of familiarity with disability, and there was always this sense that it is beyond okay that you are not well versed in that topic. As long as you are actually willing to learn and to change your perception, that is all that really matters. That was one of the first times that I was exposed to that type of learning environment, where it was incredibly comfortable, safe, and encouraging while also dealing with a very important topic that not a lot of people talk about.
Since you are a senior and are about to graduate, what are your plans for the foreseeable future?
I am hoping to go to medical school after taking a gap year. I am currently applying to a variety of teaching positions that I want to take on during my gap year. I want it to be more of a service year where I would go to teach at local public schools in general, and I am really excited to do that!
Congratulations! And how has Brown helped you in realizing that you want to engage in a teaching position?
At Brown, I realized how much I loved the idea of going to medical school and becoming a pediatrician. I realized that I really want to work with kids and families, and so I did a lot of activities centered around that interest – which extended to the research I did, and all of the different teaching positions dealing with kids that I took on during my time here at Brown. However, now that I am actually applying to medical school, I felt more compelled than ever to actually engage with that community outside of the standard health context. I often feel like a lot of doctors nowadays do not really realize the importance of all of the different social factors – education, lifestyle, family, etc. – when it comes to health. I really just want to enhance my own perspective regarding that by actually getting out there and exposing myself to the people that I hope to work with one day.
As a senior, what advice would you give to your freshman self?
College can be really hard; and I realize how generic that sounds. But, I do remember coming to college and feeling very excited about starting this new chapter of my life and about how I was going to change completely – and I did, in fact, change a lot. However, I also think I kind of underestimated how hard college can actually be. But, at the same time, it is such an amazing experience, and I often feel like we just forget about all the different incredible resources and people that we get the chance to get exposed to here. I think that is what I would tell freshman Layla: there will be lots of challenges and hardships, but that you should always remember that there are going to be so many amazing people out there that will help you get through them.
What is your fondest memory at Brown?
There are so many tiny moments to choose from for this question! This isn’t a particular answer, but there is this one thing that me and my friends do all the time where we have jam sessions in our house. I am currently living with 11 of my friends, and we very spontaneously start dance and have karaoke sessions where we sing along together. It is very random, very horribly done, and there is an uncountable number of embarrassing videos of us out there. I absolutely love it!
To what extent do you believe that these four years have changed you?
I feel like I have definitely become more open-minded. Coming to Brown, I thought that I was a very liberal person, that I was not really ‘restrictive’ with my thinking, but I had later come to the realization that I come from a very homogenous community that limited me from getting exposed to certain perspectives. College has helped me initiate this process of constantly learning because here I was getting exposed to fresh thoughts, ideas, and identities with almost every new interaction I had with someone. And in a way, this made me all the more confident in myself as an individual and in navigating these types of conversations.
What is one thing that you’re going to miss about Brown?
I am going to miss being surrounded by all of these amazing people. If I am ever going through a hard time, I could easily just knock on any of the doors next to mine, and I would be completely free to cry it out and be reminded of all of the incredible people that I am surrounded by on a daily basis. I think that more than anything else, I am really going to miss being close to all of my best friends, who are my support and family here at Brown.
Lastly, how do you feel about graduation? And do you have any final thoughts that you’d like to share?
This is going to sound beyond cliché, but I am both excited and scared at the same time. Every time I think about what the next few months have in store for me, my heart just starts beating really fast, and I have never really been entirely sure if it is because I am freaking out or if it is just because I am literally filled with thrill. I don’t really know about what’s going to happen next; I am going to have to become an adult, and will have to start dealing with the real world, which is something that is extremely scary for me to think about. I am not entirely sure about how I will navigate adult life, and I simply cannot imagine not being a college student anymore. But, at the same time, this is another chapter that I really think is going to offer a lot more than I expect; I have grown so much over the past four years, and I am probably going to grow even more than I could ever imagine in this next chapter, which makes me all the more excited about seeing where all of this is going to take me!