Campus & Community

Working for herself so she can work for the community

5 min read

How do you celebrate getting into Harvard with your family, if your family has no real concept of Harvard?

That was the situation for Layli Uddin, who will be getting her degree in international education policy from the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

She says she is the first of her community to make it to Harvard — and by this she means she is the first British Bangladeshi.

The word “fluke” comes up frequently as Uddin details her educational history. She applied to Harvard essentially because someone she’d met asked her, “Have you thought about Harvard?” And she got her application in within a week of the deadline.

Hers isn’t the story of someone who had scholarly aspirations from the time she was a little girl, or parents who were ambitious for her despite their humble circumstances, or teachers who pushed her into university.

But her story does demonstrate her belief that “education is the greatest equalizer,” as she puts it, and that “sheer perseverance” has enabled her to achieve. “Everything appears to be possible now.”

She calls herself “one of the lucky ones who escaped” the East End housing project she grew up in. But she knows that, especially in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks and the resulting wariness some feel toward Muslims, her future lies in working for her community, in England and in Bangladesh. “How do I support these young people?” she asks.

Her parents, who were born in a very conservative rural part of what was then East Pakistan and brought together in an arranged marriage, came to England, “to a strange and hostile community,” amid the chaos of civil war and independence for Bangladesh in the early 1970s.

Uddin and her two older brothers and older sister grew up “in the heart of East London,” she explains, the “Brick Lane” neighborhood of Monica Ali’s 2003 novel. Her underperforming primary school was “99 to 100 percent” Bangladeshi — “the poorest and the most segregated community in the U.K.”

Her family spoke Bengali at home. Her father even today speaks only broken English, and her mother speaks hardly a word. The only book in their home was the Koran.

If there was one influence that made a difference for Uddin, it was the local library. “As girls we weren’t let out that much,” she observes. Books may have been somewhat foreign, but the library was deemed a respectable safe place for her and her sister to hang out. The books were free. “It wasn’t quite a vacation but a nice little trip.”

She doesn’t even remember exactly how she learned to read. She just knows that eventually the words on the page made sense.

Uddin’s teachers, she recalls, “were fairly average.” She does remember that one of her tutors in college “saw something” in her. “He didn’t push me to apply to university but did push me to do well.” And she did — she was the only one to graduate from her college with three A’s in her A-level exams.

After that she went on to the London School of Economics (LSE). “It was quite by chance. Someone told me to apply to LSE and so I did. … If I’d known more, I wouldn’t have applied.” Though LSE was close to her home, it was still a “cultural shock.”

She attended with a friend she had known from age 11. In some ways the friendship kept her from fully acclimatizing to university life: “We bonded,” she says; the two were so close that they didn’t connect well with other students.

More recently, she says, the friend’s life “took a traditional turn.” Despite her friend’s prospects — “She was brighter than me,” Uddin says — she married, had children, and has returned to her ancestral homeland. “Her life is different,” Uddin says simply.

One place she has found another sense of family and belonging has been the Muslim Youth Helpline, where she worked after 9/11.

It’s an organization run by young Muslims to help other young Muslims deal with intergenerational challenges and integrate themselves better into the social mainstream. “At 22, I was one of the older ones in the group, and I was gobsmacked by these amazing young people,” she says.

She will be returning to them, but not immediately. Right after graduation she will head to China for a six-week fellowship. In the fall, she will begin a year working with NGOs in Bangladesh.

Her parents, she says, are coming for graduation — their first trip to the United States. “I’m slightly scared — I’m surprised they’re making the journey.”

There is a pause in the conversation, in which it is possible to imagine Layli picturing her parents, with their limited English, making their way through the customs hall at Logan Airport to burst through the doors on the other side of which she will be eagerly, nervously, excitedly waiting for them.

“I’m proud that they’re coming. They’ll have no comprehension of what Harvard is — but that’s fine.”