Hijab Success Story: 15-year-old Harvard Fresh(wo)man

Piscataway girl, 15, decides to go to Harvard after being accepted to 13 colleges

By Kelly Heyboer/ The Star-Ledger

Saheela Ibraheem wasn’t sure any college would want to admit a 15-year-old. So the Piscataway teen hedged her bets and filled out applications to 14 schools from New Jersey to California.

“It’s the age thing. I wanted to make sure I had options,” said Saheela, a senior at the Wardlaw-Hartridge School in Edison.

In the end, 13 colleges accepted her — including six of the eight Ivy League schools.

After weeks of debate, Saheela settled on Harvard. She will be among the youngest members of the school’s freshman class.

“I’ll be one of the youngest. But I won’t be the youngest,” the soon-to-be 16-year-old said.

Saheela is among the millions of high school seniors who had to finalize their college decisions by Monday, the deadline for incoming freshman to send deposits to the school of their choice. Nationwide, this year’s college selection process was among the most competitive in history as most top colleges received a record number of applications.

Saheela joins a growing number of New Jersey students going to college before they are old enough to drive. Last year, Kyle Loh of Mendham graduated from Rutgers at 16. In previous years, a 14-year-old from Cranbury and two of his 15-year-old cousins also graduated from Rutgers.

For Saheela, her unusual path to college began when she was a sixth-grader at the Conackamack Middle School in Piscataway. Eager to learn more about her favorite subject, math, the daughter of Nigerian immigrants asked to move to a higher-level class. The school let her skip sixth grade entirely.

By high school, Saheela said, she was no longer feeling challenged by her public school classes. So, she moved to the Wardlaw-Hartridge School, a 420-student private school, where she skipped her freshman year and enrolled as a 10th-grader. Her three younger brothers, twins now in the ninth grade and a younger brother in second grade, all eventually joined her at the school.

School officials were impressed Saheela, one of their top students, didn’t spend all her time studying.

“She’s learned and she’s very smart. But she keeps pushing herself,” said William Jenkins, the Wardlaw-Hartridge School’s director of development.

ibraheem-2.JPGAaron Houston/For The Star-LedgerSaheela Ibraheem, a 15-year-old senior at Wardlaw-Hartridge School in Edison, has been admitted to 13 colleges, and chose to attend Harvard this fall. Photo taken during a Wardlaw-Hartridge softball game in Piscataway.

Saheela also excels outside the classroom. She is a three-sport athlete, playing outfield for the school’s softball team, defender on the soccer team, and swimming relays and 50-meter races for the swim team. She also sings alto in the school choir, plays trombone in the school band and serves as president of the school’s investment club, which teaches students about the stock market by investing in virtual stocks.

Saheela began applying to colleges last fall. Her applications included her grade point average (between a 96 and 97 on a 100-point scale) and her 2,340 SAT score (a perfect 800 on the math section, a 790 in writing and a 750 in reading).

She was delighted when she got her first acceptance in December from California Institute of Technology. “I was so excited. I got into college!,” Saheela said.

More acceptances followed from Harvard, Princeton, the University of Pennsylvania, Columbia, Cornell, Brown, Williams College, Stanford, University of Chicago, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Washington University in St. Louis.

On March 30, she got her sole rejection letter — from Yale. Saheela isn’t sure why the Ivy League school didn’t want her.

“My parents were thinking it was the age thing,” she said.

Saheela was torn between going to MIT and Harvard. A visit to both campuses last month made the choice easy. “She went to Harvard and she fell in love with the place,” said Shakirat Ibraheem, her mother.

Saheela said she wants to major in either neurobiology or neuroscience and plans to become a research scientist who studies how the brain works. As for her own brain, Saheela insists she is nothing special.

She credits her parents with teaching her to love learning and work hard. Her father, Sarafa, an analyst and vice president at a New York financial firm, would often study with her at night and home school her in subjects not taught at school.

“I try my best in everything I do,” Saheela said. “Anyone who’s motivated can work wonders.”

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story mistakenly reported the number of Ivy League colleges. There are eight. Saheela Ibraheem did not apply to Dartmouth College.



9 comments on “Hijab Success Story: 15-year-old Harvard Fresh(wo)man

  1. Pingback: Hijab Success Stories « qãhırıï

  2. http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/middle_east/8368242.stm

    Saudi TV presenters break new ground by wearing niqab

    Female presenters on the Saudi channel Awtan TV

    Amani Fikri
    BBC Arabic Service

    Until recently you would never have seen women presenting television programmes dressed from head to toe in the niqab or burqa. But on the Saudi religious channel Awtan TV it has now become the norm.
    Female broadcasters at the station are draped in the all-enveloping dresses, which are usually black and also cover their faces.
    The work environment too is very different. Male technical assistants do not enter the studio while the women are presenting.
    There are more than 60 religious channels across the Middle East. Some allow women to present programmes without being fully covered or dressed in black.
    Others have no women presenters at all.
    Awtan TV decided to take a unique approach. The station was launched in 2008, and last month it set a precedent by allowing women to present, but only on the condition that they wear the niqab.

    We report from the field in the niqab and it does not stop us from doing anything
    Ola al-Barqi
    Awtan TV presenter
    Ola al-Barqi anchors a breakfast show, as well as a quiz show for girls called Mosabqat Banat.
    A key element of the programme is the relationship built between presenter, contestants and the audience – something that might be more difficult if the presenter is totally covered up.
    “The face is not the only way to build a relationship,” explains Ms Barqi, speaking to BBC Arabic.
    “We’re always receiving calls from viewers in various countries encouraging us to keep doing what we do.”
    And, as Ms Barqi points out, women are not just confined to the studio at Awtan TV.
    “We report from the field in the niqab and it does not stop us from doing anything.”
    Wahhabism, the strain of Sunni Islam that is officially practised in Saudi Arabia, is considered one of the religion’s most conservative forms.
    Some critics say that Awtan TV is restricting women’s freedom by making it compulsory to wear the niqab if they want to be presenters.

    {These seamstresses in Saudi Arabia work in the factory completely veiled}
    The issue recently returned to prominence when a leading Egyptian cleric, Sheikh Mohammed Tantawi, said he would issue an edict stating that the niqab was a “custom that has nothing to do with Islam”.
    Many Muslim scholars take the position that the niqab is not obligatory.
    But Ms Barqi says nobody “forced the niqab” on her and she does not intend to force it on her three daughters, who watch their mother on television and feel proud of her.
    However, the presenter thinks that when the time comes, her girls will want to wear the niqab because that is how they were brought up and it is, she argues, part of Shariah – Islamic law.
    Ms Barqi says there are other good reasons why she wears the niqab.
    It helps her to concentrate more on her work rather than anything else, and what she looks like is irrelevant.
    “We don’t introduce ourselves as beautiful women who put on layers of make-up. Our audience is focusing on what we present to them, our ideas and our discourse.”
    Ms Barqi believes some people work in the media to become famous. But that is not why she became a presenter.
    “We don’t need fame,” she explains.

  3. From Facebook:
    Howard Univ. Med Student: Harvard over MIT? either way mashaAllah!

    al-Qãhırıï: Yeah, I guess it was like “Cornel West or Noam Chomsky? Hmm…”

  4. al-Qãhırıï: The Muslim veil is a barrier to success, and a sign of backwardness, blah, blah, blah, Azerbaijan, France, Turkey… or is it?

    Former Colleague: empowering, will share…

    Colleague: I don’t see her wearing a veil . . . . . . .

    al-Qãhırıï: The concept of “hijab” (translated as “screen” or “veil”) refers to modest dress for men, who cover at least from navel to knee, and women who (according to the most popular interpretation of the sources) cover everything but their face, hands and feet. Many feel that covering the face and hands are recommended, but few feel that it is required. In practical use, the terms scarf and hijab usually refer to covering the hair/chest, and veil/niqab refer the the face covering. However, hijab and veil are also used to refer to the hair/chest covering.

    That said, my post was specifically referring to the laws in Turkey, France, Azerbaijan (and Tunisia and a few other countries) banning the head and face covering in schools, and the reasons behind them. I feel that the assertion that a head or face covering is a cause of backwardness or closed-mindedness is provably false, exemplified in this case, that of basketball star Bilqees Abdul-Qaadir, and countless others.

    In reference to the niqab, I’m sure this young sister could have done just as well had she chosen to cover her face…

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