Fulbright and Gates Millennium scholar: I had to learn to dream big

A 2012 Atlanta Public Schools graduate, Rifat Mursalin has done amazing things. In high school, he won a coveted Gates Millennium Scholarship, which he used to attend Emory University. At Emory, where he majored in economics and French studies, he won a Fulbright Scholarship to teach this year in Malaysia.

He's interested in writing, public speaking, social entrepreneurship, and education. He has been published in Weekly Thikana, Emory Wheel, and has been featured in the New York Times, NPR, Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and Emory Report.

In a guest column today, Mursalin writes about the dichotomy between schools like Atlanta's Frederick  Douglass High and institutions such as Emory. Mursalin also shares the revelation he had after winning a spot in Georgia's prestigious Governor's Honors summer program where he attended classes alongside bright students from across the state.

Mursalin arrived at Valdosta State University for the Governor’s Honors Program with unformed college hopes, but his peers there talked about Georgia Tech, Emory and the Ivies. “On one of those balmy July days,” he writes. “I had the epiphany that these ambitious students were just like me; they were no more superhuman than I was. If they dared to dream big, then what was stopping me?”

Nothing apparently, once Mursalin realized that he, too, had the intellectual depth to compete and the drive to succeed.

By Rifat Mursalin

My educational arc began in a developing nation that has recently been jettisoned into international spotlight with the Rohingya refugee crisis. In my primary school in Dhaka, Bangladesh, I was surrounded by competitive exams, rote memorization, and intensive coaching. I was a 12-year old who had just completed third grade, having repeated grades to qualify for a reputable school.

Attending a renowned elementary school is perceived as being key to succeeding later in life in a country rife with acute competition. Before I enrolled in fourth grade, my family relocated to the United States, settling in Detroit in the spring of 2006.

Despite my English proficiency being virtually nonexistent and my mathematics abilities dormant at third-grade level, the school insisted I enroll in seventh grade, due to my age. My memories from middle school tend to be elusive; I do recall report cards marred with Cs and Ds.

Soon after, we moved to Atlanta, and I enrolled at Turner Middle School in the Atlanta Public Schools. As APS became tarnished by the CRCT cheating scandal, I continued to flounder both academically and socially. My only solace was the attention from teachers and the constant encouragement from family. It might be worth noting that both of the middle schools I attended, thousands of miles apart, have since closed.

I continued to Atlanta’s Frederick Douglass High School, where I would spend the next four years, each formative and consequential. I had become much more comfortable communicating, although mispronouncing words sporadically. At that time, my aspiration was to graduate from high school and enroll at a local college, or perhaps “reach” for a state university. The foremost reason for the limitation of my ambition was an acute lack of vision; for the 9th grader me, it was inconceivable to aim for more prestigious institutions.

There were several events, and more importantly, several people who vastly influenced my trajectory. The educators I encountered in high school compelled me to dream bigger. From motivating me to partake in a school-wide debate to encouraging me to run for senior class president, the resounding encouragement of my teachers was the linchpin to my improving academic and social skills.

The summer after junior year was an unexpected catalyst for me. One of my teachers nominated me for the Georgia Governor’s Honors Program in the summer of 2011, and I was selected. It was salient in helping me realize I could dream bigger: I spent the summer in Valdosta with high school students from around Georgia, many of whom were aiming to attend Georgia Tech, Emory, or the Ivies. On one of those balmy July days, I had the epiphany that these ambitious students were just like me; they were no more superhuman than I was. If they dared to dream big, then what was stopping me?

In the fall, my high school counselor told me about QuestBridge and Gates Millennium Scholarship Program. The former is a California-based organization that aims to match students from lower-income families to top-tier schools, and the latter is the brainchild of Bill and Melinda Gates that provide need-based funding for students to obtain up to a doctoral degree. I was privileged enough to matriculate at Emory University, with the support of both of these programs. Without these programs and the individuals who guided me in the right direction, I would have never made it to where I am.

Four years later, I graduated from Emory with dual degrees in economics and French and became a Fulbright Scholar to Malaysia. My four years at Emory remain as stark contrasts to my four years at Douglass in many ways. Although the two institutions were separated by a distance less than that of a half-marathon, the disparities were vast. I am aware one is an inner-city public school, while the other is a private institution with a significant endowment. Nevertheless, seeing how the majority of students at Emory were so unruffled, almost as if they had anticipated their place on the campus since childhood, was a tad baffling.

My biggest takeaway from being the product of dissimilar educational systems is students are not inherently more or less intelligent. Our various education and economic policies propel some forward, while impeding others. For instance, I took the SAT thrice in high school, scoring around the 50th percentile in critical reading. I recently took the GRE for graduate school, on which I scored in the 99th percentile in verbal reasoning. Although I did read more highbrow literature since high school, my intrinsic intelligence level has not changed dramatically; what shifted, instead, was the realization that I could in fact aim higher.

There are thousands of brilliant students around the country, with their sheer potential often shadowed by their family or community circumstances. Thousands of students remain uninspired because they never have the opportunity to imagine themselves beyond their current predicaments; this stems mainly due to a lack of representation. When students see someone they can relate to, perhaps someone of their skin color or from their neighborhood, achieve something, their eyes and minds open to the infinite possibilities. This applies in politics, entertainment, journalism, and a myriad of other fields.

As a society, the onus is on all of us to ensure proper representation in all arenas, in order to ensure we engage our youths with their true potential. Organizations such as QuestBridge and Gates Millennium Scholarship Program play an extremely important role of bridging the gap between unseen brilliance and immense potential. I am not advocating everyone needing to attend or aim for prestigious universities, but it would be a failure of our community and education system if we cannot help our children and youth dream of a brighter future, more radiant and refulgent than the one they now imagine.