Two years ago, Sadia Saifuddin, the first Muslim student regent confirmed to the UC Governing Board last Wednesday, was stripped of her financial aid to almost zero dollars. A then-sophomore at UC Berkeley, she waited in line for an hour before scheduling a meeting where she was told that nothing could be done since her family’s income was just over the financial aid eligibility line.
“I felt so anxious and stressed out because I knew shouldering the burden for my education would be difficult for my parents, especially while balancing running a household and a small business,” Saifuddin said. “The economy wasn't that great and that was putting stress on my family as well.”
The following week she scraped the Internet for tips on how to craft cover letters and resumes and began applying to jobs. Saifuddin ended up working 10 hours a week at an art exhibit, five hours a week as Chief of Staff to Student Regent designate, 11 hours a week as an administrative assistant, and tutored a fifth-grader every evening Monday through Friday. It was usually 9 p.m. before she returned to her apartment and got a chance to begin homework.
“It was a very exhausting and terrifying time,” she said. “I was responsible for covering my rent, phone, health insurance, food, and clothes. My parents chipped in what they could for tuition, but a good bulk of it was covered by my scholarships that I had earned in high school.”
Since then the 21-year-old senior majoring in social welfare has made it one of her main goals as this year’s student regent to improve the financial aid system so that it is student-friendly and serves the needs of students better.
“The unfortunate reality is that this is something experienced by students everyday and that’s not really how it should be,” she said.
Saifuddin said access to financial resources is a significant factor in the declining graduation rates among the middle-class in California.
“They are often the ones that are squeezed the most,” she said. “They do not have the same access to money as the upper class do, nor do they qualify for financial aid such as the low-income group.”
In addition, Saifuddin plans to make campus climate reform a priority to increase interaction between different student communities with the regent and hear their concerns.
“It is really important for me that we are running a university that is safe and welcoming to all students regardless of their background, regardless of their personal characteristics,” she said.
Saifuddin hopes Janet Napolitano, the recently confirmed president of the UC’s 10 campus-systems and former U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security, will be willing to work students to address their concerns as well.
“She will definitely face some challenges since she does not have a strong background in education,” she said. “She will make a great administrator and manager of the UC and her experience in politics will make her a strong advocate at the federal and state level. [But] I think she will be most effective when she prioritizes students and meets often with them.”
Saifuddin’s appointment as student regent-designate has received a lot of criticism because of her controversial role while ASUC senator co-sponsoring the divestment bill, a student government bill that divests university funds from companies linked to Israeli military or Israeli settlements on the West Bank. Critics argue Saifuddin has an anti-Israeli agenda and will marginalize Jewish students on campus.
However, Saifuddin said as representative of the Middle Eastern, South Asian, and Muslim communities on campus, her role with the divestment bill was representing the needs of the students in her constituency.
She added the controversial bill brought up important conversations on the Israel-Palestine conflict as well as human rights issues in the region.
“The last thing I wanted to do was tear our campus apart,” she said. “My position on Palestinian rights does not effect my position at the regent. I will always have a personal politics, but it won’t effect how I reach out to students. Politics will never stop me from making students feel welcome.”
Saifuddin’s role on the divestment fund has overshadowed her other accomplishments as ASUC senator. The Pakistani-American Muslim was an important player in establishing the UC Berkeley food pantry in which $90,000 of funding was allocated to provide free food and hygiene products to students.
“Hunger is a real issue and we definitely have homeless students on campus [but] no one talks about it and no one comes forth about it to ask for help,” she said.
Looking forward, Saifuddin is confident she will be able to accomplish her goals this coming year, pulling from the lessons she has learned from her struggles.
“Where I've come from reminds me that I can accomplish anything with the limited resources that I have and to never take good moments in life for granted,” she said. “When you tie your camel and believe that God has your back, he will most definitely come through for you. It's just a matter of time.”
Hina Tai is a senior at Boston University studying cultural anthropology and journalism. She is a Pakistani-American residing in Albany, NY.