Imagine a school where 30 out of 33 teachers are permanent substitutes. Team sports are meant for boys, but not girls. Where the average SAT score is only 850 out of 1600. Where the only foreign language offered is Arabic, the language that 90% of students already speak at home.
There is no lunchroom, no library.
It’s southwest Detroit’s Universal Academy, a K-12 charter school of just 50 students per class that caters to Middle Eastern immigrants. Here, teenage girls are more interested in getting married than going to college.
As a ninth-grader, senior Laila Nasher, a Yemeni-American, tried starting a school newspaper.
“My school wouldn’t let me,” she said. “The school tried to censor me.”
It sounds almost un-American, but is Laila’s real life experience.
Daughter of a teenage bride who dropped out of high school, Laila shares how she not only escaped the pressure of teenage marriage, but also landed an internship at the Pulitzer-winning Detroit Free Press, a spot in Princeton’s coveted Summer Journalism Program, and a full ride to the nation’s most exclusive university — all despite living in a two-family household without reliable computer or printer access.
Laila applied to just one college — one with a 5% acceptance rate — and got in, without her family’s knowledge.
Here’s the aspiring journalist’s story, in her own words.
Laila, what’s your high school really like?
My school is so limited in resources and extracurriculars. And when I say this, I mean extremely limited. There are only two AP classes offered at my school, and until this year, they were initially only offered to seniors. There are also no honors classes, and you don’t get to choose your own schedule. We all take Arabic class, which is a foreign language requirement, and we’re placed into those classes based on our Arabic levels. That’s our only foreign language class, which doesn’t really make sense to me, considering that over 90% of the student population is Middle Eastern and we already all know Arabic. Until this year, we couldn’t really choose which extracurriculars we wanted to do. Our average SAT score is around 850 to 900. And last year, the 2018-2019 school year, 30 out of 33 teachers in my school were permanent substitutes teachers. In terms of extracurriculars, there are only sports offered to boys.w
Despite your school’s lack of resources and extracurricular options, why do you believe parents opt to send their kids there?
They really do cater to our community’s culture and our community’s needs in a way that other schools in the area don’t. I think the reason why almost everyone in my community goes to this school is because a lot of our parents are immigrants, and when they are from a place like Yemen, where most of them are from, and they come to the US, it’s a completely different experience. There’s automatically that fear; the fear of change. So when there’s a school very openly catering to our [Yemeni] culture and our needs, our parents take that trade-off of, “Okay, should we give them a good education, or should we take them to a school where they won’t be ostracized they won’t have to give up their culture?” Most times they choose the latter.
What are the general attitudes of the students there? Is there any focus on college?
Almost all of us come from immigrant households. There are a lot of traditional cultures. A really prevalent one is young marriage, like teen marriage. Throughout high school, or middle school, the main things girls talked about was, “Oh, I can’t wait to get married.” When I asked them, “Why do you want to get married? You don’t want to possibly do something else?” they’re like, “But what’s the point? I’m not going to do anything anyway in my life.”
Are the boys equally interested in marriage?
It’s the same thing with the boys. “What do you want to do out of high school?” “I’m just going to work at my family’s gas station.” I’m like, “Do you have any other plans?” And they’d say, “Well, no, that’s the best thing I could do; that’s the most bulletproof way I know I’ll be secure in the future.” There’s really no interest in going to top colleges. I personally don’t think it’s their fault.
The other aspect of it is a lot of students don’t want to say anything because [they don’t] want to get in trouble, [since] my school is known for backlash on students who do speak up.
What inspired you to break away from these traditional ideas and forge your own path?
I want to create change. I’ve never really had a female empowerment role model in my life, so I was like, “Okay, somebody to do that. And if it’s not me, then who?” It is a very scary thing to do in my community; I’ll be very honest with that. But nothing will change, and it’d be hypocritical of me to say, “This is wrong. You should have that opportunity. You should have at least the thought of [doing] something differently or trying to find [your] own passions and goals and dreams.” It’d be extremely hypocritical of me to say that but then not actually do something to change it.
What did you do to create your own opportunities, given that your school didn’t offer extracurriculars or any honors classes?
A lot of people don’t know what’s going on in my school. If it’s like this, the reason why is because there isn’t really a lot of media coverage on the inside and daily lives of students at charter schools like the school I go to. That pushed me towards journalism, education, and advocacy. In the ninth grade, when I tried to start a school newspaper, my school wouldn’t let me.
How did you approach your school’s opposition to you being such a self-starter? Most schools would reward that.
I would write articles and pass them around to students at my school. The first one I wrote was about how the year prior, when I was in eighth grade — my school is a K-12 school — the administration fired eight teachers in one day. It was six to eight teachers. It was a lot of teachers in one day, and there was a lot of speculation and conspiracy as to why [that happened]. So my first article was actually about talking to those teachers and trying to find out why. That really paved the way to what I’m doing now. Now I’m really, really focused on journalism and education advocacy. I’m planning my future on those two aspects.
How did you approach your college app journey?
I applied to Harvard Early Action and I got in. I also did not look at my Common App after that. I was like, “I am done.” That was the only school I actually applied to. I should have applied to the University of Michigan early. I was really mad at myself for not applying early on December 13, which is when Harvard was releasing their decisions. I was so mad at myself. I was like, “Oh my God, why would you apply to Harvard only? You’re so dumb, Laila; you should have applied to Michigan and you would have gotten in.”
My family didn’t know that I was applying to Harvard because it is out-of-state and they’re not really supportive that.
That’s incredible. Tell us about the moment you found out you got into Harvard.
I was so nervous. I love to eat, but that day I did not eat at all; I was so stressed, anxious, and worried. And as soon as it hit seven, I logged in and I was expecting to see the notification that looked like a big red screen saying “application update.” It was on my phone. When I clicked application update, I said, “Oh my God, whatever, screw it,” clicked it, and then my world blew up basically. It just said, “Congratulations.” I think I was too shocked to cry or anything. I just stared at my screen. I was getting so many notifications from the Princeton group chat that I was in. Everyone was just saying, “Oh my God, I got deferred”; “I got rejected.” I’m was just staring at my screen and just like, “Holy crap.” I felt like it was an hour, but it was two minutes. I was trying not to yell, because my family was in the living room and they didn’t even know that I’d applied, so they would have been confused if they’d heard me screaming.
Who did you tell about the amazing news that you were accepted?
I live in a two-family household, and my neighbor from upstairs — she’s in eighth grade — asked me to go with her to the basement to wash clothes because our basement is pretty murky at night. I think she saw something was wrong because my face was just in shock. It was like I’d seen a ghost. I was walking down so slow, and she asked me what was wrong. I was like, “Oh my god, I got into Harvard,” and started crying, and then she started crying. It was so cute.
Wow, how sweet. Your family didn’t know you’d applied to Harvard. Did you eventually tell them the news?
I live in a one-parent household, by the way. I didn’t want to tell anybody until I saw my financial aid decision, because my financial aid decision is something that’s really important to me. We’re not the most economically stable at all. So I told my sister, and I didn’t tell my brothers until I got my financial aid statement, which was in March. It was hard to keep it a secret from December to March.
How did they react?
I felt really bad that I had to keep that a secret for so long. My brothers were really proud, but they were also like, “I don’t know if you can go because it’s out-of-state and it’s not really something that people do, especially from [our] community.” I told my mom after I committed, and she said the same thing [as my brothers did].
In your community or family, what’s the general attitude toward sending a daughter to college out-of-state?
It’s extremely foreign for even a boy to go out of state, so for a girl, it’s like, “Oh my God, you’re a girl. What are you going to do in a different state? Just go to school here.” I’ve actually gotten a lot of support from community members and from friends at school who I thought would be completely against a girl going out of state.
How did seeing your financial aid results affect your mom’s and your siblings’ reactions?
I really also wanted to know my financial aid decision before I told my family. I thought that maybe that would help them adjust to me moving away from home a little bit. It didn’t really help. I got full aid, and I also got the Jack Kent Cooke scholarship, which would give me more than full aid; it would also cover my student term time work, which would basically just allow me to pocket $3,500 every year, and I wouldn’t have to pay anything. So I thought that would help, but from my experience, it didn’t do much to change their mind. It was a really hard conversation, but I knew that this entire thing was going to be hard. Not just getting into school or pursuing my dreams, but actually doing the harder stuff, like actually convincing my family, telling them that I actually really want to go to Harvard. I’m not going to get opportunities like I will at Harvard.
It almost sounds like you have two jobs: to do well in school, but also to convince your mom that Harvard is the right path. That’s such a huge challenge. What were the biggest challenges for you during college apps?
I would say that testing was the hardest part. Because like I said, the average test score in my school is an 850-900. Most of our teachers aren’t qualified by a large amount. So we really don’t learn in school.
Much of the SAT and ACT focuses on subjects taught at school. How did you bridge that gap if you didn’t learn the material?
They run this test prep program with Kaplan every Friday during the second semester for juniors. The Kaplan instructor would come in and they would teach you for a little bit. But the thing is, I really don’t think you can offset years of not learning crap by just doing a one-week session with a Kaplan instructor, especially when the instructor’s job is to teach us how to answer questions SAT style. It’s like, “You know the basic material. We’re going to show you how the SAT is going to test you on that material.” For us, we don’t know the basic material. That was really hard, because I had to basically teach myself what my school failed to teach throughout high school. I had to do that in a couple months. My average was way above my school average. But I knew it wasn’t really Ivy League level. That was my biggest struggle: to make sure [my score] was somewhere around that level. Even when I say this, my test score was way below Harvard’s average.
You’re truly a self-taught individual! Many students also struggle with the personal statement. What did you write yours on?
I wrote about my community and how I struggled with accepting the bad in my community without rejecting my community. I wrote about how my mom got married when she was still in high school, how that’s normal where I come from, and my own experience with different traditions. The other part of my statement was on how I wanted to use my skills in journalism and grow from that.
Do you have a favorite quote from it?
“While I reject the ideas I can’t accept, I hope to promote the beautifully complicated reality of Yemeni America.” The reason why I say that is because there are so many beautiful aspects to my culture and my community, but at the same time, with love comes accountability. There are so many aspects that I described already that I’m just not okay with and that need to be changed. I want to be that catalyst of change. It is hard to be the first one in your community to do it. I wouldn’t say I’m the first one, but I’m one of the first, and I’m the first one in my class to do something like this in recent years, especially [going to] something as big as Harvard.
I know that you’ve been involved in so many extracurriculars. Which moments stand out to you?
I interned with the Detroit Free Press, and I think that’s what really gave me actual journalism experience, because I was mentored by reporters whose work I’d read for years, and that was the first time I’d actually stepped into a newsroom. I knew stepping into that that I wouldn’t be nearly as experienced as the other high school interns.
What made you believe that?
I remember that mainly because when we had our training week, the person in charge asked if we knew what AP style was, and everyone groaned and were like, “Oh my God, I hate AP style.” In my mind, I took “AP” as “Advanced Placement,” and I was like, “Oh, I don’t have an AP English class in my school.” The person in charge said, “Oh, no, that’s not what I mean. It means Associated Press. That’s the language and rules that all journalists need to write by.” Oh, man, I felt so stupid.
What about your experience there do you think was impressive to Harvard?
When we were interning there, everyone wanted to get a clip of the newspaper. I was really excited to know that I made it in the Sunday Free Press; I was like, “Oh, my God.” And then I saw that I covered the opinion section, and I was like, “Oh my God, this is even better.” It was crazy. That was the day right before I went back to school, and in the article I talked about how people in my school knew girls were getting married and that they didn’t really do anything about it, so it was interesting going back to school right after it was published. I’m really glad that I published that article even though I got a lot of hate for it in the comments.
I only do extracurriculars that I was passionate about, because these were things I would have to find my own rides for and make my own time for since I couldn’t do them in school.
Can you tell me about your Harvard admissions interview?
During my Harvard interview, [my interviewer] said that she really liked how I came from an extremely disadvantaged background, yet my extracurriculars and my accomplishments would match people who come from extremely resourced environments. [For example, during my internship] for the Detroit Free Press, I walked in there knowing absolutely nothing about journals, while there were some people there who were editors of their school newspapers and who had been doing it for years. But I was able to pitch and publish a long-form feature story [while the others didn’t]. My story went viral. Same thing for the Princeton Summer Journalism Program: I was the only student to pitch, write, find my own resources, and actually report all on my own.
It’s true. You’ve accomplished so much despite such adversity. What’s your advice to someone who hopes to be in your position someday?
Life won’t hand you anything. It doesn’t have to hand you anything, because, I’m sorry, that’s just life. Instead of crying about that, you get up and do something instead. Stand up and take what’s yours, because no one’s going to give to you. You do it yourself.
What are your biggest takeaways from your college journey so far?
Looking back, it really would have helped me if I did have more support, but I can’t control everything. What I can control is how I react to things. I can’t control what my family is okay with; I can’t control the amount of AP classes offered at my school; I can’t control the fact that my school wouldn’t allow me to start any clubs or that they offended me. I started my school newspaper, and I was almost suspended twice because of my other clubs. But what I can control is that I created my own newspaper. I founded my own clubs. I applied without my family’s support, and I found people to take me to my interviews. I found people to take me to my SAT dates when my family couldn’t take me to them anymore. I found people to look over my papers. I found my own networks. I feel like that’s what built me up. I know that when I go to Harvard, I won’t be half as academically prepared as the other students, even the ones from public schools, not just the ones from private school; I honestly didn’t learn crap in high school. But the thing that I will have is that I’m really strong independently, and I’m never afraid to ask for help, because I would not have been able to succeed in high school if I didn’t ask other people.
So even though I had a terrible experience in education, I wouldn’t trade going to my high school with anything in the world because it really did prepare me for the fact that life won’t play the way that you want to play out, and the best way to [succeed] that is to just get up and do it yourself.
Thanks for your courage to stand up and share your story, Laila. Best of luck at Harvard!
This concludes our interview with Harvard-bound senior Laila Nasher. Stay tuned for future installments of our original 2020 Top Admits Series.