Yasmin Imani Alamin prepared remarks: The Invisible Four

Yasmin Alamin stands at the podium at winter graduation
Yasmin Imani Alamin addresses the crowd at Winter Commencement at EagleBank Arena on Dec. 15, 2022. Photo by Ron Aira/Creative Services

I didn’t have a first day of school. Or a second. Or a third. In Fall 2018 when I was to start at Mason, I was on the other side of the Atlantic in Kumasi Ghana registering for classes on questionable Wi-Fi in a hotel lobby. After graduating from Northern Virginia Community College, my plans to study in West Africa had tanked and I found myself back on a plane to DC much sooner than I anticipated.

By the time I landed back home, I’d been awake for 30 hours and, to my disbelief, the sun was coming UP. When I arrived on campus, having already missed my first class, I changed out of my sweats in the bathroom of what I now know is the fine arts building, then got lost twice on the way to my second class.

My interesting first day at Mason – which should have been my fourth day at Mason – foreshadowed the many challenges I would face on my way to graduating along with you all today.

I would like to share with you 4 lessons from my time at Mason. We all know the undergraduate experience is so much more than just taking classes. It is a knighting of sorts that takes us through the dark trenches of studying way too late and the fires of pulling all the weight on group projects. It teaches us that cup noodles won’t cut it, laundry is not free, and having our moms cook for us should never be taken for granted.

By the end of my first semester, I had failed to find a job, and in mid-December, I drove to school, freezing, in my family's van – since I had no car – for a 7 a.m. exam. I arrived valiantly at 6:35 a.m. and decided to wait in my warm car for 10 minutes. But, having studied deep into the night, I fell asleep in my warm car and woke up at 7. I sprinted across campus to arrive at my classroom 15 minutes late. I swallowed my disbelief, took a few aggressive inhales as I rummaged through my backpack and slowly opened the door. Ultimately, I did fine on the exam.

That was lesson number one: We must learn how to detach ourselves from prior disaster so we can perform the task at hand.  The ability to shake off anxiety about one thing to succeed at the next is a crucial skill.

The following semester I had NO money. Does that sound familiar? I was paying my own way through school, and my family is full of ambitious people who emphasize education. So expectations felt high. I could only afford to take 3 credits and therefore financial aid was zero. By the end of that January, I landed a job at Home Depot. This was a far cry from interning at NASA under my favorite mentor as I had done for two semesters the previous year. This felt like a huge step backwards. But I ended up cashiering at Home Depot for a year in lumber and the garden center, and I learned a lot about the construction side of engineering. I also was able to save up for my sophomore classes and even received some Home Depot financial aid.

That was lesson number two: Always be humble and flexible in your approach to success. Remain focused and open-minded on getting the most out of where you are and never feel you are too good to be a part of something.

By the end of 2019, I landed a dream internship at the U.S. Department of Transportation, a position that guarantees employment upon graduation. Things were looking good, then…. PANDEMIC. Spring turned to summer turned to Fall of 2020 and six weeks into that semester I failed the first fluid dynamics I was handed. I had to get honest with myself really quick and do SOMETHING different, otherwise I was not going to become a mechanical engineer. I had no money or time to retake classes. So I studied even harder, devoured the textbook and gave up watching TV. When it hit December, I might have been the only Mason student who didn’t realize the new Star Wars movie had come out.                                                                                                                                

That was lesson number three: We must take sincere responsibility for what we want to achieve. We will have amazing teachers, coaches, and professors – and opportunities -- but none of that replaces the individual commitment to determine our own success. Only then can we effectively leverage what is around us to bring our dreams to life.

So, FINALLY; Fall 2021…senior year. We had real school again. Real school with real people who I didn’t think I missed because I’m such an independent introverted person. Real school with masks that made my glasses fog up so I couldn’t see. But it was real school. I even finally had my own car.

I then became a team lead on the mechanical engineering department's most elaborate senior project. Much like my first week at Mason, everything that could have gone wrong did. From getting roasted by professors, to staying up with my team for 20 hours straight to finish papers, to mutinies, dismissing a team member for not pulling their weight, all the way to skipping the entirety of winter and spring break to get the job done. It was all there. Our work paid off and the final lesson presented itself.

Struggle means you’re on the path to victory and the struggle is always proportional to what you’re trying to achieve. Big wins require big battles and though it hurts at the time, be confident that if you are sincere in your efforts the hard days mean you are on the right track. If everything is easy, that’s when you should be concerned.

So, 4 years and 4 lessons from my time at Mason. These beyond the classroom lessons, and others like them, are a reflection in some way the experiences of all the graduates in this room. I’m confident you all have risen to some equally challenging occasions to make it to today. Persevering through undergrad, master’s and doctorate programs breeds a special kind of toughness and builds into us a skill set that makes us into human beings capable of attacking our greatest ambitions.

That is exactly who we, graduates of the Class of 2022, have become. So congratulations…and I hope you all go forth fearlessly knowing that nothing will ever be able to stop you, even if your first day of school should have been your fourth

Thank you.