My Secret Education: Community College Isn’t Good Enough For My Immigrant Parents: By ALI RAHNOMA

Pacific News Service
Tuesday November 23, 2004

I’ve spent the last two years of my life receiving an education from De Anza Community College, behind my family’s back. During that time I had the audacity to tell them that I had already graduated. In fact, I was barely passing English 101.  

I lied to them because it is shameful in my family for someone to be spending so much time at a junior college. It’s particularly bad since my cousins are all on their ways toward graduating from four-year colleges with bachelor degrees in marketing, engineering a nd other subjects.  

The truth was simple. I did not understand this cyclone of a thing called school. To me, attending community college was something that people my age did, just to do. I never thought it would take me anywhere.  

It was my only my invo lvement with Students for Justice, a politically charged student organization at De Anza, that kept me in school. I was becoming deeply involved in campus politics and constantly challenging myself to learn new things about the world. I was finally learning, whether I was taking classes or not. But activism did not move me toward a degree, a job or more money.  

When my cousins began to graduate, all eyes turned to me. With the mounting pressure, I told my family that I was transferring to San Jose State University and was not interested in De Anza’s graduation ceremony. I told them that graduation ceremonies were childish and that I would wait for my junior college degree to arrive in the mail. This was during the Spring quarter of 2002, a good two years and about 10 classes away from my actual graduation. During those two years my family kept asking for that AA (Associate in Arts) degree. I stalled, telling them the school had the wrong address and that they were verifying all my information. Besides, I told them, I was enrolling at San Jose State.  

I would purposely leave random San Jose State University documents that I had picked up from the De Anza College transfer center around my parents’ house. I kept my De Anza parking permit locked up in the glove compartment. My charade continued until I realized that a real graduation ceremony was soon becoming a possibility. Despite all the random classes that I had jumped in and out of, it finally seemed that I might be moving toward something.  

So after five years—two years after my pretend graduation—I did it. I became the first in my immediate family to earn a college degree. The ceremony featured local politicians—the same ones who kept quiet when our tuition fees doubled—speaking enthusiastically abo ut the significance of our college education. “So how many of you are the first ones in your family to graduate from college?” they asked. I shyly lifted my hand from my shining graduation gown, and raised it with the others. My family, who would have bee n so proud, were absent. They thought the ceremony took place years ago.  

It’s somewhat difficult to explain how I came to this predicament, especially to people who may not understand the complexities of growing up in a first-generation immigrant family. My family comes from a generation of Afghan refugees who sacrificed their entire lives in order to allow their children to have the opportunity to live the life they were denied. Both my parents were only a few academic units short of graduating from college in Afghanistan when the Soviet tanks rolled in and forced them to flee. Attracted to Germany’s free university system, they found refuge in the industrial city of Frankfurt and hoped to gain their college degrees. Their hopes were crushed when they found out that academic units from Afghanistan did not meet the “prestigious” educational standards of Germany. Education eluded my parents a second time.  

My mother, one of the few women in Afghanistan to study engineering, was in Germany a homemaker wh o used her quick math skills to get the best deals at local markets. My father, in Afghanistan a man of science and a well-respected student of economics, was left to use his skills working as a laborer at the German National Airport. They came to the United States for more opportunity and placed all their hopes on their newborn-to-be: me.  

I still have no money and no job, but took enough classes to stumble across the graduation stage and receive a document that suggests that I’m an accomplished person. I don’t feel accomplished, and the degree means very little to me since I did not share it with my family. It would be a shame if I didn’t tell my parents about the events of the last two years. I intend to tell them. I owe it to my family to include the m in my life, and I owe it to myself to deal with my insecurities. Things will probably never be the same in my family now, but the important thing is that my soul can finally be at ease.  


Ali Rahnoma, 23, is a writer for Silicon Valley De-Bug (www.sili convalleydebug.org), a PNS project. ÅÅ