Sanam Sheriff '18

In the Beat of a Heart

A senior's unforgettable welcome to new first-year students.

As a senior, Sanam Sheriff '18 delivered a welcome speech to the incoming first-year students. We loved it so much that we've reproduced it here.

Today, I want to welcome you all to a place that has homed me for the past four years. When I got my acceptance letter in the mail, I was thousands of miles away in India, trying to rub the sleep from my eyes at 5 a.m. and making sure I wasn’t dreaming it all up. I never got to be in the seats you’re sitting in right now. The first time I stepped foot on this campus was on Move-In Day, and all the days before that I had just put my faith in the pretty castles and the green grass and all the colorful trees I had seen in pictures online. There weren’t even videos back then; now we have drone footage, and I definitely feel old.

I want to tell you that that first day feels like four lifetimes ago. But I also want to say that it feels like four weeks ago, and time is a string that spins and spools that I can never quite measure right. I could tell you about my stomach doing cartwheels in my body when my mom was getting into the cab to drive away and leave me alone in this new and unknown world, or I could tell you about the first friend I made that day, Alina, and how it is still her door that I knock on in the quiet pockets of the night when I need a shoulder to lean on. 

It's a wonderful and scary and challenging and incredible time.

But mostly, I want to tell you that there are some things you wish you could do over—not to change their course, but just to experience them for the first time again. I want to say that if I could take the clock by its hands and turn it back to 2014 and be standing at the door you are all knocking on right now, I’d do it in a heartbeat. 

I came to this campus in search of a way out. A new leaf. A better beginning. What I found is a runway that would lead me gently into the rest of my life. Back then, I was a shy kid who played basketball and wrote poems and cracked bad jokes every once in a while. Like, Did you hear about the kidnapping at school? Don’t worry, he woke up. Pretty weak, I know. But what I mean to say is that back then, I knew I had a voice and had things I wanted to say and scream and sing, but I hadn’t yet found the courage to forklift the words from my chest and offer them to the world around me. When I give tours now to visiting families, I say “Hey, my name is Sanam. I’m a senior here, which is still weird to say out loud.

Every path I got to take was paved in some way by the doors that were opened for me here on this campus.

I’m doing an independent major in creative writing. I played basketball for a couple years before studying abroad in Copenhagen for a semester. I run a spoken word poetry club, I hold a couple of jobs and dorm leadership positions, and I have a bicycle that has a water bottle holder that fits my speakers just right, so I ride around campus playing my favorite tunes and sharing a quick smile with the people I pass by.” That’s the gist of it. But like I said, I’ve spent what feels like four lifetimes here. So many selves have passed through me. It is a wonderful and scary and challenging and incredible time when you move out of the safety and comfort of your family’s home, of the streets you know by name and the turns you know by heart, and shift into a world where you have to find your own footing, and choose your own route through every day. 

I was terrified that Bryn Mawr was a women’s college, and I had no idea how that would play out in my life. But looking back, it is truly my favorite thing about this place. I say this knowing the experiences my high school friends are having in their co-ed colleges. I say this having taking classes at Haverford and Penn almost every semester, and I say this knowing that it is a man’s world out there. But here, in a country that is foreign and threatening to me, in the arms of this campus, I still feel most powerful. There is something to be said about that. And there is something to be said about the world that is created when women run it.

In the arms of this campus, I still feel most powerful.

At Bryn Mawr I quickly learned that I couldn’t complain about things—because I had the agency to change them. I just had to be passionate enough to put in the work. And that concept—the idea that you can transform and build and achieve the things you care most deeply about—is one I was so unfamiliar with before coming here, but over the years, it has changed the way I carry myself through any space I enter. 

I’m majoring in creative writing, and that’s an independent major, which means it doesn’t actually exist, but I got to design it and propose it to a committee and have it approved because they believed in the vision I had for myself. I studied under professors who are best friends with the writers whose books I carry in my backpack. I put on poetry productions with the poets I used to watch videos of back in India, and I call them my dear friends now. I spent four months in Denmark living my best life and perfecting my Danish accent. I spent a summer in Austin working at an internship that transformed the trajectory of my life. This winter break, I got invited and flown over to Amsterdam and paid real money to perform at a literature festival with some of the most amazing writers and thinkers I’ve met. And this fall, after I graduate, I will begin on the Watson fellowship that will put $30,000 in my bank account to travel the world for a year and pursue my passion and discover myself. That’s not me paraphrasing—it’s literally how the fellowship is described. 

When I say this to you now, it all sounds and feels like a dream I am making up yet again. But these things really happened to me, are still happening to me, and every path I got to take was paved in some way by the doors that were opened for me here on this campus, through this community, by the people who work so selflessly to put the wind beneath our wings. 

I’m just a kid from India who dreamed of getting a full scholarship and going to America, y’all. I had no idea where I would be four years later, no clue what this journey would look like. I’ve made friends who will be giving speeches at my wedding. I’ve made memories I already cry about while remembering. 

Once, after a tradition we have called Lantern Night, my friend and I were so full of joy and love, we stayed up all night and watched the sun rise; I’ll never forget seeing the sky sing itself pink and turning to her and saying, “We’re gonna be seniors one day. I don’t want it to happen so fast.” Another time, I was on campus for winter break because of basketball, and it had been more than a year since I had been home, and I remember exchanging Secret Santa gifts with my team over dinner and feeling the presence of a kind of family I had never known outside of blood. And another time, it was graduation day of my freshman year here, and I was sobbing saying goodbye to the seniors who had made me feel so held and happy in this place that was so far away from anything I knew.  I remember losing my mind when I found out there was Nutella just readily available in a jar in the dining hall whenever I wanted it. I remember realizing how small this campus was when I had fought with a friend and didn’t want to see them but ended up bumping into them at least three times a day. And I remember being in Copenhagen, so anonymous in that big city, and craving that smallness, the familiarity of walking through campus and saying hi to at least five people I was so happy to see. 

My time here has been wondrous and difficult and hard to wrap into words. But
I think I have spent it building that thing that cannot be removed from me—a knowing of who I am and what I stand for and everything I am capable of that nothing can knock down and destroy. I would have loved to get a taste of this place before I arrived here on that first day after a 20-hour plane ride struggling to stay awake through my introductions. You all are sitting in such special seats. The day ahead of you is so, so exciting because it could be the beginning to the rest of your life. 

So, take it all in, if not for yourselves, then for me, for the 18-year-old kid inside me that is standing on her tiptoes for a chance to do it all again. Talk to the people you might be brushing your teeth next to someday. Listen closely to what this campus and community has to offer you, and try it on for size. See if it fits. The fact that you’re here already means that it would look so damn good on you. I tell my friends this over and over, but Bryn Mawr, in many ways, has felt like a four-year summer camp to me, in the best way possible. And I’m so honored to welcome you here, and I hope with my whole soppy heart that you get to feel some of that magic today. 

Congratulations y’all. Welcome.   

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Sanam Sheriff
Sanam Sheriff '18 will travel the world through The Thomas J. Watson Fellowship, which is awarded to students of “unusual promise” for 12 months of independent international travel.