A Conversation with Student Regent-Designate Sadia Saifuddin: Reshaping Identities

Sadia Saifuddin, the newly elected Student Regent-Designate for the UC system, clearly encompasses all the qualities of a leader on the rise. She was elected last spring and soon after, was rather viciously criticized for her support of the divestment bill (the bill called for the divestment of UC funding from companies that support the Israeli military occupation of Palestine), which passed last April at UC Berkeley. Her interview tells more about her side of the story on this issue, and goes beyond this to talk about her experience as a student who happens to be the daughter of immigrant parents, a practicing Muslim, and a young woman. Her identity is not defined by the stereotypes that serve to distract from the importance and breadth of her work, but rather is made up of many layers that give her a strong voice and nuanced perspective as a student leader. That she was elected to represent the entire UC body of students speaks to her incredible ability to transcend the many borders that have been imposed on her, and perhaps more importantly, speaks to the unfolding shifts and changes within our own society that have allowed identity politics to take a backseat to quality leadership and representation. 

Nadia Barhoum [NB]: Tell me a little about your story and background, what's important to you?

Sadia Saifuddin [SS]: I grew up in Fremont, California, and we moved to Stockton about twelve years ago. I’ve been involved in student government and student activism for as long as I can remember. It’s been a big part of my life, and has shaped the way I see myself. I am the oldest, and I have four younger siblings. My parents came to the United States as immigrants from Pakistan about 25 years ago. My father attended Michigan Tech University and my mom recently decided to go back to school again. I come from a long legacy of women in education; both my mother and grandmother have been teachers, so education is very important in my family.

I came to Berkeley three years ago. I’m a senior now, and I’m majoring in Social Welfare. I love my department, and I love what I do. I applied for this job [Student Regent] after thinking about it for a long time. I was a senator last year for the Middle Eastern, Muslim, and South Asian Coalition. I formed the food pantry, which is a place where students who are struggling with finances can come get free food and personal hygiene items. We secured about $90,000 in funding for that, and it should launch by the end of the [fall] semester. I’ve done other various projects on campus like trying to combat sexual assault, as I’m big on women’s advocacy. We also established a meditation space on campus that’s used by many communities.

I was applying for a bunch of jobs my sophomore year when all of my financial aid was taken away. My parents barely made above the mark to qualify for financial aid. It was one of those situations where you, according to the paperwork, are making too much, but in reality you’re not making that much. This is an issue that many middle class students face. My sister is in school, too, so there was a huge financial burden on the family. I supported myself and worked three jobs during the day and tutored in the evenings. It was definitely a rough semester.

One of those jobs I had was Chief of Staff for Jonathan Stein. I really started to learn about higher education and the structures in place that cause students like me to have these difficulties and go through the stress of being a student, a student-worker, and an advocate. It was in this position that I realized my passion for higher education, and I decided to apply to be the Student Regent. Initially, I didn’t think that I had a shot at the position because students from across California apply and many of them are graduate students who have had a few years off to do a variety of amazing things. As an undergraduate, I only had three years of experience to draw from, but thankfully, I got the position! I feel really blessed and excited to work on some of the issues that were personally near and dear to me during my college experience. 

NB: Do you feel like identity politics have been used for/against you as a leader at UC Berkeley?

SS: I took some time over the summer to think about the aftermath of the divestment vote and how this experience shaped me as a person. The divestment vote last semester followed a lot of grassroots and community organizing; coalition building was at the center of the vote’s success. It was important to create an understanding in the UC Berkeley community that human rights is not a complex issue. Divestment is not about criticizing Israel, and it’s not about criticizing the Jewish community. Divestment creates a critical dialogue about the injustices committed by the Israeli government. I am just as critical of the atrocities committed by the Saudi Arabian government, Burmese Buddhist majority government, as well as the Chinese government. If we want to make lasting social change, we need to be comfortable talking about humanity. I think that because of the United States’ massive support of Israel, criticizing the Israeli government has become taboo.

Here at UC Berkeley, we are so big on talking about diversity and really standing up for the rights of people, but when it comes to Israel, we make exceptions. We think holding a critical perspective of the Israeli government is unacceptable, or that you are automatically an anti-Semite for asking the hard questions about the Occupation. At the beginning, it was really difficult for me to navigate this because I felt like I was being maligned, and I was! I’m not an anti-Semite, and I’m close to many of the Jewish leaders on campus. The pro-Israeli and Hillel student leaders were actually the ones who supported my nomination and defended me and labeled those opposing me as complete extremists, which was a beautiful lesson in solidarity that I will never forget.

My experience only solidified that Islamophobia is such a real phenomena and people were using my criticism of the Occupation as a way to perpetuate Islamophobic ideas. It was all just one big quagmire of criticism – some of it was Islamophobic, some of it was political, but the response that I got from the people who have worked with me and who know me personally was very nuanced and supportive. They said that although they disagreed with me on this issue, they still supported me as their representative on the Board. I think that people have aligned themselves so strongly with one country that it has become nationalism, and nationalism always leads to some kind of problem. I think the student leaders now are realizing that there is a separation between nationalism and religious identity, and that their politics do not have to be consistent with either of those.

During Divestment, I had a lot of conversations with Jewish and Muslim student leaders about how to approach this dialogue and how to address it in a way that could put an end to violent confrontations. I have discussed these issues on NPR, NBC, and many different media outlets that often perpetuated the same ideas that Muslims or anyone remotely Arab-looking are defined by their position on the Occupation. They would use this experience as a way of putting our community in a box: this is the only thing that Muslims or Middle Easterners stand for and they can only represent this singular community. Whereas that same question was not asked of Cinthia Flores; does she only represent Latino students? It was not asked of Jonathan Stein—because he’s of mixed race, does he only represent Indian and White students?

I am very obviously Muslim—my name, my headscarf, everything about me is pretty Muslim. I was asked this question because orientalism was at play. Stereotyping a community and defining them on your own terms is a form of racism. If you look at my record of student advocacy, I have advocated for all students and worked with almost every community regardless of their background. I met with so many student groups, from the Quidditch team to the Jewish student newspaper, to many others. When people question my ability to represent all students, I find it really humorous. Because I have already. I have represented over 32,000 students at UC Berkeley and I am going to represent 230,000 students across the UC, whether the extremists like it or not. Using Islamophobia to battle anti-Semitism is not a sustainable strategy to end discrimination, and I’m going to continue my work for all students until we have all reached a better place and enhanced the causes of social justice.

NB: How do you deal with this and how do you think you're helping deconstruct stereotypes?

SS: When all of the media frenzy was happening it was definitely scary, and I was getting calls from news stations for interviews. It was something I’ve never experienced before but I realize it was good because it was putting a voice and a face to a struggle that isn’t portrayed as being multi-dimensional. When we hear about Muslims in the media or Muslim women in the media, we always hear the same narrative about them being oppressed or being subject to some kind of injustice. We hear that Muslim men are violent and angry. I think by doing these interviews, people were able to see a different part of Muslim, Middle Eastern, or South Asian identity.

A lot of the struggles that we all experience are very similar. Many of us experience the same kind of hatred even though we are ethnically different. They were able to see that this is a multi-dimensional woman. She does a variety of work on campus. She has a stance about human rights, but she also has a stance about student hunger and cares about sexual assault and all of these other things. That was important. I got so much fan mail, for lack of a better word, and I actually have a letter on my table from a government relations organization that says something to the effect of “your appointment is great because you’re deconstructing stereotypes and especially helping people who can identify with you in being able to break those boundaries themselves.” I think I had to go through the difficulty of all this so that other Middle Eastern, Muslim, or South Asian activists can more easily come after me. 

NB: According to a recent article written about your first Regent meeting, Regent Richard Blum, who chose to abstain in the vote for you, approached you and "reassured that he would defend you to the media," to which you responded, "My qualifications speak for themselves." What inspires that confidence in you? You’re a senior in college, you’ve already been through all this divestment blowback, so what is it that keeps you going, and how do you maintain that confidence and composure in the face of people who, in the hierarchy, are considered your seniors?

SS: My mom is really amazing. She is one of those people who will speak truth to power regardless of where she is. She always taught me that you should always be really proud of who you are, and you should be proud of what you’ve accomplished. I think as women, a lot of the time we downplay who we are and what we’ve done. We’re used to being the ones who ask for permission before we do something. You’ll see this in class—guys regularly speak out of turn and girls wait until they’re called on. I think that there are so many things that have become part of our identity because we live in a country where patriarchy is the default setting.

I guess what also inspires that confidence in me is that I’ve reached the point where I have faced everything I could’ve face and have overcome these challenges in one way or another. I’ve supported myself and taken care of myself emotionally and financially. I was able to survive these people who were really trying to slander me in the media. I don’t need someone to stick up for me because I’ve been there for myself. I would be lying to myself if I was apologizing for something that I didn’t do. I need to make sure that I’m doing my job, and if I’m happy with the person I am today, and if I know that I’m better than the person I was yesterday, then I’ll be satisfied. I belong at that table, so there’s no need to beat around the bush when it comes to people being patronizing and asking things of me.

NB: In your experience, what are the top three issues that concern the UC student body?

SS: Diversity is a huge one. The passage of Proposition 209 really limited the diversity of the university because affirmative action became illegal. I’m lucky to be here, but do we realize that African American students make up only 2% of the student population? Diversity’s a major issue at the undergraduate level, graduate level, and also at the faculty level. We don’t have a very diverse faculty, and I think that’s important because you can’t be what you can’t see. It’s important for students to see people like themselves teaching their classes.

A second issue right now would be President Napolitano’s appointment. I’m cautiously optimistic about her appointment because I think she will be a great manager since she’s coming from a big institution and has the political capital necessary to advocate for us in Sacramento. At the same time though, there are some very real student concerns that have been brought up that I’m hoping she will address soon. If we don’t talk to her about those issues then she won’t understand what the student concerns are.

The third concern would be the affordability of the university. Talk of that has died down because last year, Proposition 30 passed. However, Prop 30 was just a Band-Aid solution that won’t last unless we figure out a more sustainable and long-term plan to keep education affordable. It’s something I think about for the future generations. What will to happen to my brother? He’s seven now and wants to go to college in ten years. What’s affordability going to look like then compared to now?

NB: If you could look back at the time served as Student Regent, what would you have liked to accomplish?

SS: I would love to see the Regents be more accountable to the students. One of the problems with the Student Regent position is that it’s kind of an excuse for the Regents to say that students have representation on the board, but the goal of the Regents should also fulfill the goals of the Student Regent. Each Regent should strive to do what is best for the students and represent their opinions and perspectives. One of the biggest problems is that the Regents are not very diverse and don’t necessarily understand what makes up the student experience.

Also, the Regents currently meet in UCSF, and UCSF is one of the most isolated campuses. There’s no undergraduate body there that can protest any of the Regent decisions, so they don’t have to worry about direct student action there. The BART doesn’t even go to UCSF; more effort could be made to hold the meetings in a place that’s more accessible to students. I think that if the Regents open themselves up more to students and really work with them to craft policy then we will be in better shape as a university. I would also hope to see that we start moving towards being more affordable. The master plan was supposed to guarantee free education, but college has become something that many people can no longer afford. The UC system has become an elite institution. I would hope to see that there’s a push to go back to those ideals of making education free.

NB: What's next for you?

SS: Life is crazy because I never thought that I’d be working as the Student Regent, graduating from college, and applying for jobs now. I’m really interested in looking at the intersectionality between social welfare and corporations in the business world, and how we can make the business world more conscious of their role and impact, particularly in the developing world. I think it would be really awesome to do consulting for a couple of years with a company that works to come up with sustainable solutions in developing countries. Multinational corporations need to look past the idea that Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) is just one project they need to do simply to say that they participated in something for the common good. Rather, they should be critically reviewing their day-to-day operations and the framework under which they operate so that they can be more accountable and friendlier to the environment and community at-large. I would love to do consulting for those kinds of projects, work for a couple years, maybe get my MBA, and maybe one day start my own consulting firm. That’s 10- 15 years from now, so I have some time to figure it out.

The ideas expressed on the Haas Institute blog are not necessarily those of UC Berkeley or the Division of Equity & Inclusion, where the Haas Institute website is hosted. They are not official and not of one mind. Thoughts here are those of individual authors. We are committed to academic freedom, free speech and civil liberties.