UMBC Women Who Rock: Rehana Shafi

UMBC Women Who Rock is a blog series I’m working on throughout the 2014-15 academic year (and now perhaps beyond). In my role as Women’s Center director, I have some of the best opportunities to become acquainted with some of UMBC’s best and brightest women on campus. I admire the ways they live authentic lives unapologetically that challenge the stereotypes and assumptions that are often assigned to women. By debunking these stereotypes and forcing us to check our assumptions, they allow us to expand our notion of what a woman is and can be.

-Jess

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UMBC Women Who Rock!
Rehana Shafi, Director of the Sherman STEM Teacher Scholars Program

In the few UMBC Women Who Rock blog posts I’ve written over the past year, I end with the same paragraph every time. I ask my readers about which UMBC women inspire them and how the counter narratives they’re sharing with us allow UMBC and our greater community to be more of exactly who we want to be. I absolutely love the power of counternarratives and their ability to expose assumptions and reveal complexities and depth. And, while it’s so important to emphasize the counternarratives, after connecting with Rehana Shafi earlier this summer, I was reminded of the importance of also simply knowing the narrative of someone’s life.

Rehana speaking at the dedication of the naming of Sherman Hall.

Rehana speaking at the dedication of the naming of Sherman Hall.

Rehana and I are both a part of the Undergraduate Academic Affairs (UAA) Division and for the past four years have shared time together at leadership team meetings. During these meetings, I have looked to Rehana as a role model as I design my own concept of women’s leadership. I appreciate the time I have to sit with her around the UAA leadership table. She asks important questions, provides important context to discussions, inserts moments of humor and light-heartedness, and exemplifies confidence. I have learned a great deal from Rehana by simply being at the same table with her. And, despite having spent this time with Rehana, I recently was reflecting on the fact that I knew very little about her and who she is. This realization inspired me to set up a time to meet with her under the guise of a UMBC Women Who Rocks interview.

So, I asked her “Who are you?”

But, let me take a step back. This actually wasn’t the first question I asked her. 

Rehana with the graduating class of 2013 Sherman Scholars.

Rehana with the graduating class of 2013 Sherman Scholars.

First, I asked her about her role as the director of the Sherman’s Scholars Program and what journey did she take to get there. She shared her journey starting out an exercise science major in college, which led her to a brief stint working as personal trainer. Through this experience she learned that she really liked educating people, which led her to the experience of teaching ESL to middle school students, which eventually led her to working in the Choice Program in an alternative school in East Baltimore County. Of course, the Choice Program led her to the Shriver Center at UMBC and she worked there for several years coordinating service-learning and K-12 outreach. Finally, she found the perfect opportunity in the Sherman STEM Teacher Scholars Program to apply everything she loved and was important to her about education, and she’s been working as the director ever since. We also talked about what it looks like for her to be a woman of color in a leadership position and the responsibility she feels to reach and support the few others on campus who look like her.

While this is a very condensed version of our conversation and her journey, through the simple act of storytelling, I realized how much Rehana and I had in common. We no longer just worked in the same division at UMBC but also had these neat little connections. We both have social work in our background and found our way into higher education as a way to find balance in self-care and still wanting to make a difference. We’ve both experienced first-hand the inequities of education and the ways in which children are pushed through systems. We both see ourselves as educators and that doesn’t have to include being in the classroom. We also both feel constrained by 5 and 10-year plans and would rather just be open to the possibilities.

When there was a pause in the conversation, I took a step back and looked at the questions I had prepared related to why she as a UMBC woman indeed rocks. I had scribbled down a note that asked “life outside of UMBC?” and that’s when I asked the big question, “Who are you… Who is Rehana outside of UMBC?”

Up until this point, I had been jotting facts down and was heading onto a third page to ensure an accurate portrayal of this UMBC Women Who Rocks. But, this is where the note taking took a pause and I just listened. As she attempted to answer this question, Rehana vulnerably explained to me, “I’m still searching for what that is.” In this part of our conversation she shared the deep impact the passing of loved ones has had on her recent journey. She spoke to the time she spent needing and wanting to take care of others around her but how that also impacted her ability to practice self-care. She’s beginning to figure out what self-care looks like for her and what that means to who she is. It includes eating well and exercising and maybe learning to swim or pick up sewing again. It includes what’s around her and not letting life happen while she isn’t watching. Through this simple question, I learned more about who Rehana really is and wants to be – and it’s way more than what exists on her resume or within her job title. It made me think about how often leadership and excellence is defined by doing, but the real challenge is really in the being.

This has me thinking a lot about a recent post another Women’s Center staff member wrote in the aftermath of the Baltimore Uprisings. She began her post with the question, “How are you?” and reflected on the deep importance this simple question holds in providing critical care to others. After my conversation with Rehana, I believe the similar meaning can be given to the question, “Who are you?” Asking the questions of “Who are you?” and “How are you?” is integral to practicing feminist leadership. I’m grateful for the time Rehana and I carved out during our busy days for her to share her story of not just doing but being. As I head into what I’m sure will be another busy fall semester, this experience has encouraged me to challenge myself to take the time to ask that short and immensely powerful question – “Who are you?”

Rehana with the Shermans and Dr. Hrabowski at the Sherman Hall dedication ceremony.

Rehana with the Shermans and Dr. Hrabowski at the Sherman Hall dedication ceremony.

Who are the UMBC women in your life that inspire you to think outside your expectations and assumptions? What are the counter narrative stories they’re sharing with us allowing UMBC and our greater community to be more of exactly who we want to be? Comment below and maybe you’ll just find them featured in a future UMBC Women Who Rock post.

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Check out other UMBC Women Who Rock:

Amanda Knapp (featured August 2014)
Susan Dumont (featured October 2014)
Jahia Knobloch (featured January 2015)
A Reflection on Encouragement and Accountability (February 2015)
Amelia Meman (March 2015)
Ashley Sweet (May 2015)

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