PNDP Student Narrative Biographies

Munir Atalla
I was born in Houston, Texas a Palestinian Christian in exile. I am an indefinitely temporary Jordanian. I’m an Arab-American. For a while, moving back and forth from Amman to America, I lost sight of my own narrative.

Things changed for me when I watched the film “Amreeka” a few years ago. The film tracks the story of a family of Palestinian immigrants who move to Brooklyn. Their story was much different than that of my family in many ways, but it showed me that we were not alone. Seeing myself on screen for the first time was revolutionary. It changed the way I imagined myself, the way I imagined my family, the way I imagined America—Amreeka. I am interested in creating this sort of art—art that tells stories of communities often ignored and affirms their existence, their belonging, and their value.

My family moved back to Jordan in the wake of the 9/11 bombings. Moving back to Jordan was challenging. It was like I was meeting a brother I had heard of and seen photos of but never met. We spoke different languages and wore different clothes. We liked different foods and watched different shows. But after the initial awkwardness, I got to know my long-lost culture and now embrace it wholeheartedly.

The second change came at a Black Solidarity Day rally I attended freshman year. One of the performers took the microphone and recited Langston Hugh’s poem I too sing America. I saw that I, too, had a stake in this country made up of so many different narratives melting and mashing up against each other. We the confused are the radiant, radioactive waste produced by that sweaty fusion of races and places no one ever knew could become one. In my work, I want to explore and question the idea of the “American”. Who gets to feel American? Who has our country betrayed? Or better yet, who hasn’t it?

Hannah Bassett
My arch nemesis in life is habituation. No person or thing has the power to craft my experience with my surroundings more than habituation does, and more often than not it takes hold of me without me even knowing. That’s the thing – the dangerous thing – about it: I am hardly aware when it has me in its grasps. But that is not to say I have not developed my own defenses.

Growing up in a quaint New Hampshire town, I spent my first decade of growing pains believing it was the standard experience to live in a town with no stoplights, one store, and hardly 2,000 people. I rode my horse to school under the assumption that this was the most normal thing for an eight year old kid to do. Heck, I was just following the norms of my favorite literary heroine, Laura Ingles Wilder. I would walk my dog down to the old Country Store and buy him a biscuit and myself a handful of penny candy before turning back home again. Everyone waved to everyone; everyone knew everyone. It is so clear now that this bucolic, sheltered childhood is far from universal, but for me this was the world.

I have found travel to be one of my greatest weapons for providing perspective checks on the world around me. No matter my destination is a car, train, or plane ride away, it is when I feel all of my senses on high alert, trying to soak in as much of my new surroundings as possible that I know I have shaken off my blinders and have begun to truly experience my environment. It is when I can see an array of brightly colored goods before me in a market, smell the wafting sweetness of fresh baked bread displayed in the stand next to me, hear the merchants bartering with the customers, and feel the crowds push past me that I feel the most alive.

The lens of a camera is my other most trustworthy defense. I have found that just having a lens on me flips a switch in my brain and compels me to look at my surroundings with a different eye and a deeper awareness. It is as if the camera is a filter to the world around me, cutting out what I had previously deemed mundane and replacing the ordinary with the extraordinary. The lens compels me to remove the ear buds from my ears, to draw my eyes upwards from the sidewalks, and to appreciate the often-overlooked beauty of the world around me.

With each new day, I try my best to escape the norms I have been conditioned to in order to make the most out of each experience, no matter how familiar. Whether I am traveling across seas or across the street, with a lens at hand I will continue to fight off the haze of acculturation and to capture the intricately beautiful world around me.

Sheena Brevig
“Where are you from?...Ecuador?” A Muslim Cape Tonian calls out to me as I walk to my friend’s home stay to play music, sing and unwind. Ecuador, huh. That’s a new one. But I’ll add that to Brazil, Mexico, Hawaii, India --- among others.
I’m actually half Japanese- half American, raised in both cultures and languages, and for years felt the dichotomy between these two profoundly different upbringings. With an Asian mother, it’s unsurprising that at the age of three I was tap dancing, playing the piano and attended Japanese pre-school. This lifestyle of juggling many activities was an act I held for the majority of my life. Until freshman year of high school when I realized I needed a change.

My predominantly Caucasian hometown in northern California was a blissful organic haven. It was a world of wealthy hippies that had migrated from Berkeley in the 70’s and settled a bit north, free from the worries of the rest of the world. I felt claustrophobic, trapped in this happy bubble that was Marin County. That was the first time I made the decision to completely flip my life. Literally. I decided to spend my sophomore year across the globe in Japan with my grandmother, and played three seasons of sports for the first time. Attending an international school, my world expanded, as the value of diversity was something I finally experienced and appreciated. I realized I wasn’t half of two cultures, but instead was “double.” I was a mutt surrounded by other mutts from various backgrounds and finally felt comfortable in my own skin. Which is why studying abroad in college, and spending time in Cape Town felt so close to home.

People of all colors from numerous cultures create a community with endless opportunities for learning about how others live. While my ambiguous phenotype left me in limbo for most of my life, I eventually found it allowed me to slip easily into people’s lives and made the task of seeing the world through their eyes simple. This ability to get lost in conversation fully present in the moment incited a welcome but rare peace of mind that grew over the four months I spent in India, Argentina and South Africa. As I finish up my Tufts undergraduate career with a biopsychology degree, I constantly yearn for that flawless instant when two seemingly divergent people laugh at a shared thing. That’s what brings me the most joy: others’ smiles and laughter. So I collect these smiles and moments, and will chase these instances and the stories that accompany them, for the rest of my life.

Allison Graham
I often find myself imagining life in different places—such as Vienna, Austria or, just as easily, the Vienna in Blaine County, Idaho—but I have only lived along either coast of the United States. I spent the first half of my life in the San Francisco Bay Area and the latter half in Northern New Jersey, and now, although it’s strange to say given how short a time I’ve been here, I am content to call Tufts my home.

Growing up, I lived a pretty ordinary American existence (at least stereotypically so): a house in the suburbs with my mother, father, two younger sisters and a dog. It’s very strange to talk about my childhood in retrospect; I’ve never done that before. It can’t be over already, can it? As far as things I did as a child and things I do now, they’re about the same. I’ve always loved school, loved learning, reading, making art, talking to people, exploring the outdoors and other new places. And although I’m not sure I was conscious of it at the time, I’ve always been fascinated by the little things. I revel in the floating, fleeting bits of life, the simple things. And in that way, I feel like I’m still the same curious child.

“Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going?” – the title of a favorite Gauguin painting and also some of the questions that make me wonder. In the same vein, different people, places and languages have always had me at “Hello.” I appreciate different languages for the significance of their subtleties and the stories they share; I studied Latin for seven years before coming to Tufts, and since then I have started French and Russian.

Another language that I live is a visual one; I see art in everyday life, which I try to capture. I derive an inordinate amount of excitement from the beauty and interest in life’s fleeting moments: the smile of a stranger in the rain; the interactions between characters, each other and the world; the ability of light and shadow to cast emotion and intrigue on inanimate scenes. I steal these details on camera, relishing the serendipity of color, texture and depth. I can always find solace in these simplicities, the same peace of mind whether focused on passersby in the street or an exquisite mountain summit. You now know how much I enjoy these things: languages, photography, adventuring—but I must add how central other people are to my enjoyment of all this. Yes, many of these ventures are sometimes solitary, but what is a photograph without a subject or at least a person with whom to share it? What is an adventure without a companion, or someone with whom you share your story? Who can speak a language alone? My point: above all, most compelling to me are people—our thoughts, experiences, potential—but really, just people.

Hadley Green
Not many people can say their lives have revolved around a 20-mile section of a highway. I believe I can. If I ever became famous, one could create a “Hadley Green Life Tour,” spanning from exit 42 to exit 30. Many important places in my life can be touched upon from this stretch of highway.
Around exit 40, look off to your left and see a large, rectangular brick building in the distance. This is the hospital where I was born, on June 3rd, 1993, in Stoneham, Massachusetts. The hospital has now been closed for close to fifteen years, but every time we drove by it as I was growing up my mother would say, “Look Hadley! That’s where you born. On the top floor in that corner room to the right.” I would look out, time after time, from the backseat of my mother’s Volvo and wonder if the room was now covered in cobwebs, if the sheets were still on the beds, and if any windows had been broken.

Ten minutes away lies the next eighteen years of my life. Take exit 42, and you will come to Andover, Massachusetts. Andover is a woodsy suburb of Boston, full of sidewalks and ice cream trucks, where I could bike to and fro, and take piano lessons for the lady down the street. In high school I focused mostly on schoolwork, and realized I had a knack for writing and speaking French. High school was fine, and Andover was a wonderful place to grow up, but I yearned for more diverse types of people, to be on my own, and to discover what my purpose was as a student, and person.

From Andover, get back on I-93, drive about 20 minutes, and you will pass a sign for Tufts University. Tufts has been the most important part of my life to date. Never did I expect to find a cornucopia of knowledge, opportunity, and friends tucked away in the outskirts of Boston. Aside from traveling to Africa once with my family and going to France during high school, my life has been somewhat sheltered and one-dimensional. At Tufts, I have tried to challenge my existing beliefs about the world and make sense of the complexities and problems that govern our lives.

Our last stop occurs around exit 35, after a clearing in the trees, before Target blocks the distant horizon line on the left side of the road. In this gap, you will see some blinking, red lights in the distance. Focus on these lights, as trees and other cars zoom by, and they will coalesce into a smiley face. As a child, I would search for this twinkling face and swell with satisfaction when I found it. The smiley face been there for as long as I can remember, and it always instills a sense of calm in me. It is a secret sign for those who are quiet and patient enough to see it. A message that the best things in life are neither blatant nor ostentatious, but simple acts of kindness.

Sabrina Ghaus
I grew up listening to my mother read aloud long passages from The Arabian Nights and Robin Hood, with my sister and I huddled next to her on below-freezing nights in rural Ohio. After moving to California when I was still quite young, my cousin, my sister and I began a tradition of holding clandestine nighttime meetings around a flashlight and candy from LA’s Koreatown to make up narratives about a mysterious place called WP Land.

Storytelling, in this way, was ingrained in my childhood, and I fell in love with its practice. Post-9/11, storytelling became a method of survival.

I was nine at the time, the youngest daughter in a Pakistani Muslim family. Like many others, I was quickly catapulted into the position of constantly having to defend the humanity of the people I loved and identified with in the face of violently simplified narratives. To this day, I don’t know how to fight back other than with counter-narratives of my own. It hurt – and still hurts – when I only hear stories of Pakistan as a land of violent instability. It is also a place where kids order cakes at three in the morning, and nobody refuses a cup of tea. Pakistan is one of my homes, a place to pour love, not ignorance.

Home is a question that I am constantly trying to answer. I spent a lot of my life in the Silicon Valley of California, where I – a writer and artist – never quite fit in, and being a second-generation immigrant also complicates my feelings of belonging. Finding and telling stories, then, gives me a sense of place, of knowing and experiencing something personal and specific.

My motto has become, “do it for the story,” though sometimes this may not serve me well – spontaneous swims in unknown bodies of water, apparently, make for good stories but also mild hypothermia. I balance this thirst for experience with the wisdom of my mother, who once told me that no matter what I do in life, I must always make sure to help people. Most recently, that led me to conduct an oral history project with women in Bangladesh. The life histories that I gathered of women from various underclasses – rural and urban poor, non-ethnic Bengalis, survivors of wartime rape – complicate and question the dominant narrative of the country’s independence.

I like to think of my life as following the structure of The Arabian Nights – a complex map of stories within stories. In that light, my next plan is (hopefully) to hike the Appalachian Trail, to look for stories while continuing to write my own.

Zara Juneja
As an aspiring wanderlust born and brought up in New Delhi, India, my life has been coloured with vibrant stories. Although my citizenship is British, nothing feels more like home to me than a hot cup of chai in India amidst the playful company of my four overly energetic dogs. In the vivacity and endearing confusion of my hometown and big-family upbringing, my education, extracurricular interests and work experiences have all centered on my curiosity and passion for travel, media, international policy, photography and social entrepreneurship.

Quintessentially enthusiastic, at eighteen I chose to pursue my undergraduate degree in International Relations and Communication Media Studies at Tufts University in Boston. It was this adventurous appetite for the unfamiliar that led me to study abroad in Paris for a semester. Roaming the streets of Europe with nothing but a backpack (far too weighty for my 5’2 stature) and camera, I found there was something so engaging in simple observation and attentiveness to the unknown. This passion to explore and a keen interest in people and places have taken me to countries spanning across Europe, North America, Asia, the Middle East and Africa. Along the way, I’ve managed to pick up an open-minded and exploratory approach to life.  

An avid chatterbox myself, nothing pleases me more than an endearing conversation. I have always enjoyed the occasional impassioned dialogue on relevant social, economic and political affairs – be it through my love for ranting, writing or photography. All this chatter nonetheless has been bolstered with real world experiences. So far, my work with organizations such as Financial Times, UN Information Center and Aspen Institute, has given me eye-opening insights into a diverse range of professional environments. My love for fieldwork outside of an office cubicle has also steered me to get involved with groups like a student-led sustainable development initiative, BUILD:India and a student-group aimed to incite dialogue on South Asian affairs, SAPAC. I like to force myself out of my comfort zone on a regular basis.

And yes, I have an oversized world map hanging over my desk pointing to where I’ve been – Hopefully one day, it’ll be a pretty sprawl of coloured pin heads.

Shehryar Nabi
Once again, the cursor blinked impatiently at me. I had a fantastic idea for an article I pitched to my supervisor about a week before and he was completely sold on it. But I couldn’t put together a first sentence. Everything I wrote sounded bad and read awkwardly, leading me to lose faith in my topic as a whole. All the knowledge I acquired after a thorough private study was completely invisible to the world without a clear voice to express it.

It wasn’t always like this. For much of my upbringing - whether in my hometown of Washington D.C. or while visiting family in Lahore, Pakistan - I happily communicated the experiences and interests that defined my childhood. Trips to Pakistan, a fascination with primates and video game obsessions were all things people absolutely needed to know about.  

As I hit adolescence, an increased awareness of myself and others shifted the weight of importance from communication to understanding. After forming a strong impression that few people could understand what I was saying, self-expression turned inward and enjoyed itself mostly behind closed doors. It was during this time writing and music became my preferred mediums of expression.  

I could easily justify this solitary development as the basis for my successful application to Tufts University and summer internships. But as each semester ticked away, I found myself living to be understood by others rather than myself. I realized that I had confused personal cultivation with inhibition, and that knowing oneself requires doing and saying just as much as it requires introspection. This was when I decided that an openness to unpredictable reactions would have to erode my fear of being misunderstood. New challenges, such as the Program for Narrative and Documentary Practice and a more serious pursuit of my interest in music, would test this conviction. The result? Awkwardness. Cringe-worthy awkwardness. Worth it, however, for every passing kernel of feeling anew and awake.

Saman Nargund
I was born in the middle of a grotesquely humid Singaporean summer, and was instantly nicknamed Makadi (slang in Marathi, the language of Maharashtra, for spider) by my father because of my lengthy, bony appendages. Today I’m merely 5’4, but I like to think that it’s because of my scoliosis.

I’m a global nomad. Some people claim that ethnicity determines origin, while others insist that citizenship is the only official way to establish where a person comes from. I am Indian-Muslim by heritage, a Singaporean citizen, but I’ve also grown up in Moscow and Dubai.

Due to my father’s job, my family moved to post-communist Russia when I was four. As a child, my lens was tainted by innocence—I would attempt to hold conversations with the armed officers that guarded grocery stores (the devaluation of the Ruble had caused extreme poverty), and would refuse to be ignored by them. I loved the outdoors; and would often visit my father’s friend’s dachas (Russian summer houses), alongside the wooden summer homes of Tolstoy and Pushkin, as well as Darwin’s Museum of Natural History. These experiences led me to declare, at the age of five, that I wanted to be a writer and a naturalist. This was when I started writing and illustrating juvenile non-fiction pieces and novellas, binding them with staples and adorning them with markers and crayons stolen from my elder sister, Toshih. Toshih is now a speech-language therapist who lives in the Bay Area of California.

After Moscow, I returned to Singapore at 9 years of age. I attended school at the local Convent of the Holy Infant Jesus, and was utterly confused if I was being a bad Muslim by partaking in morning and after-meal prayers. I now know there are many other ways to be a “bad Muslim.”    

Soon after, my family relocated to Dubai, where the world’s largest indoor ski-slope sprung out of the sand about 5 minutes away from my high school. To me, Dubai is a city of superlatives, but also of juxtaposition. It pained me that the most luxurious hotels and shopping malls were built in a matter of years by South Asian laborers who were often denied their salaries. Interacting with some of these laborers at the camps, which were located in the outskirts of the city, made me believe that reality consists of a myriad of perspectives that we often ignore because we are in our own worlds. I don’t want to stay confined within one reality—I wish to explore as many as I can.

I am now a student at Tufts, and I love how my classes make me question the knowledge that others accept. I am still obsessed with all things kawaii (such as Hello Kitty), and creating—both by writing & photographing. Sometimes, I enjoys being out of touch with reality, as I dream of assisting a band on their live tour.

Jeremy Ravinsky
My name is Jeremy Ravinsky. I was born on the November 5th, 1991 in Montreal, Quebec. My astrological sign is Scorpio. I’m a senior at Tufts, studying political science, and in my spare time I perform wacky plays for children with the Tufts Traveling Treasure Trunk. When not on campus, I like to hike and snowboard, and one of my dreams is to learn to surf.

I have two older siblings: my brother Robert and my sister Laura. Despite being the youngest of three, I was the first to leave home, a fact I both pride and feel contrite about; it’s not easy leaving home. But if you knew me, it would not be surprising that I took off as fast as I did.

Growing up, I loved sports. To my disappointment, however, I was and still am a rotten athlete. I just can’t seem to get my hands to coordinate with my eyes. But I now think of it as a blessing in disguise. By the time I got to high school, I had given up whatever athletic aspirations I had ever possessed – including my dream of becoming a professional snowboarder, a dream that vanished soon after dislocating my pelvis – and had resigned myself to lunchtime in the library. It was there that I developed a fascination with the world and a persistent itch to escape the provincial confines of my high school, family, community, city, country! I knew I had to escape, if only to get away from my then classmates, with whom I never really connected.

On weekends, though, I broke free. Being lucky enough to grow up in the wake of chaos wrought by my trouble-making older brother, and to live in a safe and walk-able city, I was free to use the island of Montreal as my playground. For those of you who don’t know, Montreal has a reputation for being fun; just ask any of my current classmates who’ve made the trip north. As a teen, I spent weekends – and some weeknights – exploring the city by foot, soaking in my city.

But still, it was not enough and as I got older, my desire to make a break for the mainland and what lay beyond grew more intense. And at age eighteen, I finally took off to pursue my studies in the distant and exotic land of… Medford. Disappointing, eh? But good things come to those who wait, and I’ve certainly had more than my fair share of good things while here. Only a fool would lament four years in a place like this. And I’ve tried to stay as connected to the world as I can while remaining in place.

At Tufts, I’ve fostered an interest in journalism and have interned at GlobalPost and the Christian Science Monitor in Boston, and at while studying abroad in the Balkans, a part of the world I plan to revisit as soon as possible. I’ve been very fortunate. But four years is a long time, and I’m feeling that itch again.

Zhou Zhuangchen
According to my parents, my name means I would either fly really high, or fall really bad. That is probably why I always think I am different.

My parents worked for a Chinese military hospital in Nanjing, China. Although professionally a doctor, my dad in heart is a military fan. Since I was able to pick up a magazine, all I saw were pictures of M-16, Apaches helicopters and tanks. Naturally, the sole destination of my pocket money was a model shop, where I could get all my toy guns, aircraft carriers and helicopters.

There was a huge lawn in front of building where my parents worked. My favorite pastime until 12 years old was wearing my camouflage and hiding in the grass to watch people passing by. I had great patience. I usually go at noon and stay for the whole afternoon till dinner, watching the sun spills its warmth onto doctors, nurses and patients.

I was moderately good at school. Up until I was 15, I have always thought I would spend my entire life in China and be a doctor like my dad. But my mum said I should go study abroad and go see the world. And like most Chinese kids who chose to go to college overseas, I decided to come to America. When I was applying to schools, the girl I secretly liked said her dream school was Tufts. I did not spend even a second thinking about if applying and later going to Tufts was the right thing to do. Ironically, the girl ended up in Vanderbilt. Luckily, I love Tufts.

In college, I decided to pick up my camera seriously. I would make time, if I do not have any, to just walk on the street and stop from time to time when I see exciting compositions. I would hold up my camera, but not press the shutter right away. I wait, just like I did in my childhood. Then there is a person coming into the frame. I wait, wait and wait. And then, I press the shutter.

Lots of my relatives are expecting me to earn “big money” in banks or consulting firms to justify the financial burden I put on my parents. The idea of going to work and do the same boring thing just repels my guts. I want to set my foot to where no others have been with great individuals and capture our adventures. That way, 50 years later, can I look back on my life and find no regrets to, well, at the least the name I bare.