Okay, so my name is Umer Piracha and I was 18 when I first arrived in the US. I’m originally from Multan, Pakistan, but I did high school in a city called Lahore. Two years of high school in Lahore, and then I got admission into Franklin and Marshall College. I was received by some international orientation advisors. One of them happened to be from Pakistan so there was a sense of familiarity there. And I think we stopped on the way to Lancaster, Pennsylvania from Philadelphia—we stopped at a pizza shop on the way there (laughs).
So…but I guess one thing that I’ve always had trouble answering, ‘If I had any preconceived notions about America and if I was surprised in any way.’ Both of those answers are sort of close to no. Because, I mean, yeah, I grew up watching movies and all that. But, I don’t know, I guess like because I was in a different city for two years I already had learned to dispel preconceived notions of a place before you go to it. And it was kind of a buffer before I arrived in the US because I was already able to leave my hometown and already experienced what it’s like to be away from my family.
I was coming from a background, which was very strong in mathematics and sciences and almost immediately I realized that I no longer wanted to pursue that. So I just have made this sharp shift towards humanities and the arts and just studied, you know, anthropology and film and music. And that’s a big identity for me now: an artist and a musician. It started taking shape back then.
I guess there was some sense from previous people from my part of the world that you should have a direction because ultimately you have to be pragmatic or whatever. But I remember not paying a lot of attention to that, I didn’t take that very seriously (laughs). I realized that getting an A- is not a terrible tragedy (laughs). Coming in from Pakistan where there’s a lot of pressure to be the very best. Nothing short of an A or whatever. When I got an A-, I remember being very disappointed and protesting and taking it up with my professor and my professor was so confused! (laughs) He said, he was like, ‘I mean, I don’t understand, why are you so disappointed?’ I was like, “Because I have an A-, not an A!” And he was like, “Well, it’s not about specifically the grade. It’s about your experience in the class.” And I was like, “What?” (laughs). Yeah, I know, but that was a, you know, revolutionary idea to be exposed to that. Your experience and your learning in something---the process itself---is more important than being attached to a particular result. I think I carried that with me.
Franklin and Marshall is a very supportive community. It was in a small town that was quite peaceful. The other side of that was that people thought it was very boring (laughs). But, I mean, I think that the having the four walls of safety, a very dedicated, supportive transition program to address culture shock, that type of thing... that made me feel very comfortable. I don’t think that my real adjustment to life in the US started until after college because, I mean, you’re suddenly thrown in the middle of the economy and you have to weather all the changes that are occurring in American life and you’re a part of it and no one gives you a heads up about that (laughs).
My mother was diagnosed with cancer when I was in my second semester freshman year. And she was back in Pakistan and navigating that was just like…in one sense an incredibly tragic thing to happen and on the other hand it was like this sort of springboard where you feel like, “Okay, now you have to like take charge of everything by yourself.” The community at F&M was very supportive, but I remember like going an entire semester without really having an entire conversation with anyone because I wasn’t ready to discuss anything that was going on. There was a certain peace to it, like a peacefulness to it, because I knew if I wanted to talk to people I would. But I could exercise within that safety what I needed and if I needed to keep a distance until I was ready to go back into the, you know, communal life.
A lot of really inspiring things that have happened since in my life have a lot to do with the changes that I’ve went through at that time because of having to navigate such a big tragedy. Well, having said that, obviously it was tragedy so it was very difficult. My freshman year was almost defined by that. And then, sophomore year, you know, I was able to take that and transition into like a more focused approach and hoping and… I traveled a little bit more. You know, I went to Turkey for a project and I was in London for a semester. It was just sort of a process of healing, but also like as a springboard that takes you to new experiences and that was really fantastic.