Interview with Safa Arshadullah

Interviewed by Samia Abbasi,
Dreams In-Progress Creator + Host

Our first guest for Dreams In-Progress is Safa Arshadullah! This blog interview series looks at how Millennials + Gen Z-ers are taking steps toward their aspirations and the resources that have helped them along their pathways. I had such a wonderful time talking to Safa about her…
– experience being an organizational studies major
– internship at a PR firm in Malaysia (summer 2018)
– fellowship with MAIP (summer 2019)
– process of applying for the Watson fellowship
– senior thesis on Diversity, Equity, & Inclusion
– thoughts on graduating early and her post-grad plans

PC: Meera Kolluri

[PROFILE]
Name: Safa Arshadullah
Pronouns: she/her
From: Bay Area, CA & Kuala Lumpur (KL), Malaysia
Institution: Scripps College, winter ’19
Area of Study: Organizational Studies major, English minor
Intended Career: Advertising + Strategy

INTRODUCTION: Conceptualizing Her Pathway

Q: Tell me about yourself, Safa! What are you passionate about?

A: I was born in the Bay Area but grew up between Hyderabad, India and Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. I love to explore food, especially South and Southeast Asian flavors, and experiment in the kitchen. Other than that, I can talk to you for hours about the representation of South Asians & Muslims in pop culture or storytelling-based Diversity, Equity, & Inclusion. You can find me at your local Trader Joe’s, stocking up on kombucha and multigrain sourdough bread.

Q: Take me back to when you were applying to college and thinking about your intended major. What were you interested in?

A: I knew I wanted to do something in the realm of communications, and something that was really interdisciplinary because I’ve always been somebody who enjoys having many avenues to knowledge and growth. I didn’t want to feel stuck in one certain academic pathway or career trajectory, so I applied to a couple of universities that had schools of communication and also to smaller liberal arts schools with a focus on humanities and social studies.

Q: In high school, did you ever feel pressured to choose a certain pathway?

A: There’s the typical pressure socially and parentally to be on a career path that can provide financial stability more than anything so there was a little bit of a push to go into medicine and STEM. That was interesting to me but not really my main passion or something I wanted to pursue, nor something I felt like I would be successful doing. But there wasn’t a pressure to actually do it, because my parents encourage me and my siblings to pursue whatever we wanted. So there was a little bit of pressure and there are still moments where I feel like “Oh maybe I could have done an Econ major and become a part of a tech company and find earlier financial stability in my life,” but at the same time that wouldn’t necessarily be personally fulfilling or a job that I would be interested in growing with. So I decided to stick with what I like and want to know. 

Q: What is Organizational Studies? What was your experience like at Scripps?

A: I chose Scripps because of their Organizational Studies major. I knew that that was something I was interested in but didn’t know it was something I wanted to do for sure. Org. Studies is an interdisciplinary major that combines economics, political science, psychology, and sociology. I thought it was very humanities-driven but what I learned was that within each of those disciplines, you can basically take whatever class that piques your interest.

There wasn’t a certain like specific list of classes you had to take other than the organizational studies classes that give you the overarching big picture–organizational behavior, dynamics, theory classes. So the flexibility within the major allowed me to take classes in Asian American studies, media studies, sociology, linguistic anthropology. Although I came into college not knowing what I wanted to do, I stuck with org studies and determined I wanted to be in a more creative realm of the communications industry. 

Q: What were some of the pathway stepping stones you set for yourself in college?

A: I think one of the biggest foundational parts of college was me knowing that I wanted to be an Org. Studies major. Since I kind of figured it out my first year, it allowed me to explore a little bit more within the major rather than having to fulfill requirements and struggle to finish all of those things up by the end of college. So, I think having a little bit of an idea, whether or not it’s perfectly solidified, of what you want to do and what your interests are is really helpful. I understand that that’s not always feasible and sometimes you just don’t know what your interests are until you take a random class and you’re like “Oh maybe I do like Asian American studies or whatever.” I think keeping all of your doors open is the biggest advantage you can give yourself. 

Safa enjoying the sunset at Scripps | PC: Meera Kolluri

Throughout college, the relationships I built with my professors have been very valuable in helping me find a support system, talk through ideas, and potential ways forward with myself whether it be career-wise or personally. Also just finding friends who support you in everything that you do but also challenge you in your thinking, ask you confronting questions, make you reflect and help you grow as a person. 

SUMMER OPPORTUNITIES: PR Internship + MAIP Fellowship

Q: What summer opportunity did you pursue with your org. studies major in mind?

A: The summer after sophomore year, I interned at a PR agency in Malaysia which is where I grew up. It was really nice to have an internship experience internationally but also in a place that is my home. I learned that I didn’t like PR work and I think that’s a huge revelation. I knew that communications in general would be interesting to me but I didn’t really know what each of those specific jobs entailed. Being in PR at this internship meant communicating with media outlets, journalists and individuals but also being a liaison to the client and those people. So it was a lot of interpersonal relations that could be really finicky and not necessarily creative in a way that I would’ve liked. Everything was at the whim of the clients, so it wasn’t necessary that you had creative say with their media presence or what their brand identity could look like.

There was a trip toward the end of the summer that was for one of the clients which was a property development company whose corporate social responsibility arm works in rainforest conservation. They hosted a little retreat for a bunch of celebrities and influencers from Malaysia and I was on that trip which was super fun. It was kind of interesting because I recognized some people but I didn’t really know anybody. I was walking around being part of the group, taking photos and stuff. It was really cool to be in a social situation where I didn’t feel comfortable in retrospect, but in the moment, I felt anxious and more like an outsider. It was a learning experience in that sense because I learned how to place myself and how I behave in situations when I feel completely out of my depth or out of the circle. I think that’s helped me in situations where I’ve had to do that now and I’m a lot more successful at it because I had that experience where I didn’t feel successful before. 

Overall, It was a great summer because I got to be at home in Kuala Lumpur as an adult, because I had just lived there growing up. It was great in that respect personally. It also was great because it helped me learn that there’s something I didn’t want to do for sure.

Q: Tell me about your experience with MAIP. How did you know advertising and strategy felt right for you?

A: MAIP is the Multicultural Advertising Internship Program and I was told about it from our cousin Suhail Shaikh, who works in advertising. A couple of years ago he was like “hey you should check out this program, I think it’s really cool,  my agency has a couple of interns from this program.” It’s a focus on advertising through the lens of diversity and inclusion and it just helps you get experience in the advertising world. I couldn’t apply to it until I was a junior in college, so I waited for the right time.  When I did, I wasn’t really sure whether I wanted it, I was mostly doing it so I could try it out. Suhail recommended strategy as a discipline that I would potentially be more interested in compared to copywriting and art direction and account management etc., because it’s more of an interdisciplinary field,  where they take ideas from as many different perspectives as possible. It’s really interesting so you should try it out. And I did and I’m very grateful to have gone through the application process, which took a long time. It started in October 2018 and I didn’t find out about my placement until January 2019. I had to get letters of rec, a written app, a video app, an interview over the phone from a couple of people from MAIP. It was hard and I didn’t really realize the gravity of the fellowship until I was a part of it during the summer.

I was placed at an advertising agency called Giant Spoon, which is incredible and they do some creative, thoughtful,  nuanced work and I’m very grateful to have been placed there. I didn’t really know what to expect from any agency for that matter, but it was a relatively niche agency until I realized the kind of big work that they do. I was working on one client for the whole summer, so I got to do a lot of fun, detailed research work, presentations, help work on the brand book and brand identity for the client, I got to help determine their mission, vision, brand placement and voice. I didn’t think that working in communications could be so imaginative.

A couple of weeks into the summer, when I had only done a little bit of work, I realized something instinctively clicked and told me that this is something I want to pursue. Now I’m working toward a career in brand strategy and it’s really exciting. I think a lot more people should consider strategy, and advertising more generally, as an advantageous career path. Essentially, you are able to shape how people interact with the media around them and in turn, with their society. You get to shape the kinds of messages that they are getting in the media they consume and what kinds of things implicitly stick in their minds. I think there needs to be more people of color and “diverse” points of view in the industry. And that’s what MAIP  helped me see as well. It was a focus on multicultural identities and a means for me to consider that as an integral part of my career path as well. 

Q: Tell me about the experience of living in New York for the summer. How did that shaped your idea of where you want to live in the future?

 A: Since I grew up in KL, I have always been in or near a city. Coming to college in a suburb of a suburb basically, it really helped me realize that I needed to be somewhere more metropolitan, somewhere more active. When I went to New York for the summer, I connected with the place in a way that I didn’t think I would. I thought I’d be lonely in sea of so many people in a city that I didn’t know anyone in. I think in a sense I did romanticize it for myself, but being there for 2.5 months really helped me be a little more woven into the city. Since I didn’t know anyone in the fellowship, I felt pretty out of sorts for the first couple of weeks. I was just finding my bearings and trying to connect with my roommates and the people in the program with me and so that took a little time, but I ended up making some wonderful friends.

I also had friends from college who were either in NY for the summer or had just graduated and moved to the city, so I got to spend time with them.  That gave me a sense of grounding to have people who knew me in my college experience and there was a sense of comfort as well. I think having access to public transportation, being walking distance from anything, a CVS, bodega, deli, grocery store, to have those resources nearby is really helpful but more than anything, seeing how many kinds of people there are in this world and how unique everyone’s perspective is. You can truly run into anybody and not expect what they’re going to say and that’s exciting to me. 

SENIOR THESIS: Awareness, Empathy, and Intention: Creating Constructive + Responsive Structures to Diversity, Equity, & Inclusion

Q: What was your thesis about? What was the experience like of writing it? 

A: My thesis is about diversity, equity, and inclusion structures in organizations and how to make them more empathy-based rather than  quantitative/statistics based. That’s not initially what I thought I would write my thesis. I was talking to my advisor about it but it was truly a culmination of all my interests and thinking throughout college because so much of what I studied were academically about representation in media, whether it be for South Asian people, Muslim people, marginalized identities. That was where a lot of my academic interest was, but also the work I did with our social justice office and as a Resident Assistant. 

I really wanted to create a rubric or organizational tool for organizations to be able to evaluate what kind of diversity, equity and inclusion practices they may or may not have at present and how to improve them. That ended up being a huge undertaking for a semester long thesis in my final semester when I was also doing other applications and schoolwork, so my thesis ended up being a foundational text for that to build on later.

Q: Do you feel like your thesis will influence some of the work you’ll do in your career path?

A: Yeah, absolutely.  Connecting back to the first question about MAIP, they bring in many multicultural perspectives and backgrounds into advertising and marketing industry. A lot of our workshops for the fellowship had to do with DE&I in the advertising workplace, media etc. At Giant Spoon, I was a part of their D&I council and helped set up their first event and help plan some of the events and workshops they would be hosting throughout the upcoming year. Seeing what that process looks like, actually from the ground up, helped me see what kind of work is being done right now but also realize that’s a very specific experience and a bubble in which people are aware of equity and inclusion. That’s why I  made sure my thesis could zoom out of that a little bit and made sure my experience at MAIP wasn’t just a case study. I wanted to highlight how practices can be implemented for organizations that don’t have that D&I practices or aren’t aware of the possibilities of something like a D&I council.

WATSON FELLOWSHIP: Application Process

Q: What has the process been like to apply to the Watson fellowship?

A: The Watson Fellowship is an award given to a handful of students from nominated liberal arts colleges around the country to pursue a project outside of the United States for a year. Their project can be anything that they’re interested in. The process was definitely one of the most intensive, self-reflective processes I’ve ever had to do. It was very personal, and a huge learning experience not only because I learned what it’s like to apply to a fellowship and going through multiple interviewing processes, but also because I learned so much about myself that I didn’t realize I want to bring into the real world. My project, if I were to be a Watson fellow, explores how food builds community for people who are involuntary migrants, refugees and asylum seekers, and how they develop resilience and adapt to new cultures and how they find financial stability in their migration process, how food is a focal point in creating a sense of belonging.

It was a long process that started the summer before senior year, in terms of developing my idea. I learned about the fellowship from the editor-in-chief of my student newspaper and my RA as first year. Both became Watson fellows in their respective senior years. I am really grateful to have had those two people as sources for me to talk through the process and know more about what it’s actually like to be on a Watson year. After that, it was just a lot of writing, self reflection and talking to professors, family,  friends, and figuring out what exactly was the very specific project I wanted to pursue. The idea changed a couple of times but the project that I landed on hits all parts of myself and about the world I want to explore.

Q: Can you tell me a little about your personal connection to your intended project?

A: Cooking has always been something that is integral to my life, something that I did with my grandma and aunt as a child. Baking and cooking are forms of de-stressing for me but are also expressions of creativity. Seeing how that could translate into a completely different “third culture” experience for somebody who is an involuntary migrant–who has no choice but to move, has their agency toyed with–was a thread that I wanted to explore deeper. As a third culture kid with roots in the Bay Area, CA, USA + Hyderabad, India + Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, I learned how to cook so many different things and learned about flavors from being in different countries in my life. I wonder what that look like for people who have experienced displacement on a different level and trauma in their lives. That’s how my project kind of came to fruition and the countries I’m looking to explore involuntary migration have vastly different socioeconomic statuses, ethnic backgrounds, and support structures, whether they’re in the global north or global south. I want to know more about how they make cooking fruitful for them. 

GRADUATING EARLY: What’s Next?

Q: You just graduated from Scripps! How are you feeling right now? What are some creative projects or things you want to do in Malaysia while you wait for the Watson results?

Petronas Towers | KL, Malaysia

A: It feels like a relief to have graduated; I had a busy, hectic, fruitful, frustrating, enlightening 3.5 years of college, so I’m excited to have a break and be with family in KL and to live in a place that makes me comfortable. I have a lot of growing to do, so there will be lots of exploration of the city and places that I didn’t really get to explore when I lived there as a kid. I’m feeling a little bittersweet because I made some of the best friendships and relationships that I’ve had in college and I value and treasure those relationships immensely. I know those will persist but the fact that we’re not in the same vicinity anymore and have that same proximity to keep our friendships alive is something that I’m grappling with. And, yeah, it’s a mix of being excited about what’s to come but also terrified that it’s completely unknown and the safety net of having school the same way that it was after high school just isn’t there anymore. So, I’m trying to figure out what my future can look like and that’s exciting.

In terms of creative projects I’d like to pursue, I once had a blog and I did a lot of writing, reflecting, and sharing my thoughts on moments in pop culture and media that I’m interested in. I want to bring that back to life. I’m also especially interested in combining my interest in cooking and writing and exploring my family history through the lens of food. That would be something a little bit more long-term but I think I want to flesh it out and think about that while I have some time off. Those are some things I’m thinking about. Other than that, I want to make my first TikTok with my brothers! 


RESOURCES THAT SAFA RECOMMENDS:

We Are Next: for college students and juniors beginning their careers in advertising & marketing
MAIP: Multicultural Advertising Internship Program; fellows are paired with an advertising agency for the summer to kickstart their careers
Amaliah: for Muslim women writers & journalists

SAFA’S TOP 5 FAVORITES:

Books:
1. A Place For Us by Fatima Farheen Mirza
2. Flight Behavior by Barbara Kingsolver
3. Procession of the Dead by Darren Shan 
4. A Cook’s Tour by Anthony Bourdain
5. Sula by Toni Morrison 

TV Shows:
1. Patriot Act with Hasan Minhaj
2. The Americans 
3. Bon Appétit (YouTube channel)
4. Jeopardy! 
5. Schitt’s Creek

Podcasts:
1. Revisionist History 
2. Qalam Institute
3. Armchair Expert
4. Bon Appétit Foodcast 
5. Hidden Brain

“I think keeping all of your doors open is the biggest advantage you can give yourself.”

– SAFA ARSHADULLAH, DREAMS IN-PROGRESS

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