When Brooklyn Tech high school graduate Ayan Rahman talks about going to college in the midst of a pandemic, there’s a sense of what could have been. Like so many of Brooklyn’s teens, he missed out on a graduation ceremony and will never have a “normal” start to his freshman year.
But the 18-year-old from Kensington says 2020 has prepared him and his peers for life in ways he never expected. In fact — with wisdom beyond his years — Rahman said the experience had given him a “mental graduation.”
“At least for myself and a lot of the seniors, we were upset about not being able to walk the stage. But that was all really physical,” he said. “Quarantine is allowing us to have a mental graduation. Obviously we were missing out on the physical — but it has given us the opportunity to be introspective and walk into the future prepared.”
For example, this year Rahman was able to connect more deeply with his peers through launching an Instagram page dedicated to documenting the teenage experience in quarantine.
This unique perspective and attitude of service in times of struggle were no doubt some of the reasons he was awarded one of the prestigious Milken Scholarships — an honor that recognizes community service and ability to overcome obstacles.
At the beginning of July, Rahman found out he was one of five students in New York City to win the prestigious Milken Scholarship.
The scholarship awards $10,000 towards recipients’ studies, but Rahman said, more importantly, it connected them with a network of other professionals from all different fields who integrate community service into their life’s work.
“I think that’s super cool how, like, giving back and being community-minded can manifest in any sort of field,” he said.
As a student at Brooklyn Technical High School, Rahman was heavily involved with the school’s Key Club, a student-led community service group that touches mental health awareness, environmental protection, diversity and help for younger kids.
Rahman said he found his people in the multicultural Key Club of Brooklyn Tech, but he didn’t always feel so at home. As a child of Bangladeshi immigrants (Rahman moved to New York as a 1 year old), he said it was tough going to a predominantly white middle school.
“On the basis of culture and tradition I did not see myself represented at school, and I didn’t identify with the experiences of the kids I went to school with. It took a toll, it hurt,” he said.
“I felt the need to code-switch a lot and create an identity for myself that wasn’t me for the three years I was in middle school.”
Rahman said when he went to Brooklyn Tech, he finally started seeing people who looked like him in their diverse cultural backgrounds, and discovering who he was. “Once you’re in a group where you feel welcome and you feel like you have a voice, you’re able to do so much,” he said.
Rahman said he’s grateful to his parents for keeping Bangladeshi culture alive at home. He said, visiting his home country last year he realized how much his parents had sacrificed to build a better life for him in the United States.
Nowadays, he also credits his parents with his open-mindedness and willingness to explore complex ideas.
Some of those ideas have been tackled in a project Rahman started with friends Kyra Horario and Dehlina Dowdy, called Quaranteenage. The Instagram project is an online-archive telling teenage stories of coping amid the pandemic.
The project was started around the beginning of quarantine as Rahman found himself unable to sleep. “I text my friend the morning after saying, ‘I feel like I’m experiencing so many feelings I can’t define with single words’… they were like, ‘You know what? I was thinking the same thing.'”
The Instagram account has been a safe space where teens from New York and across the country can share their stories, thoughts and feelings about topics like mental health, family issues, abuse, grief and racial justice.
While some may wonder how Rahman finds the time to do all the things he does, including playing the flute and being fluent in three languages, he admits he does feel the pressure.
“It’s been a balancing act,” he said. “I want to do things I love and not things I feel forced to do, and at the end of the day I realized the things I choose to participate in are things I love and care for. That’s the mentality I’ve used to perform the balancing act.”
This year Rahman will be heading to the liberal arts college Grinnell in Iowa, and he doesn’t yet know what he wants to major in. But, with his philosophical nature, all that matters right now is that he continues to be a part of the world and get through what’s thrown at him.
“I feel like we’re living through history right now, and I don’t wanna be left behind. I want to be someone who can say that I’ve lived through quarantine, and I’ve been able to overcome the hardships that have come with it.”
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