Name: Mary Sadallah
Hometown: Egg Harbor Township, N.J.
Major: Philosophy, politics, and economics with a minor in modern Middle Eastern studies
What made you become so involved in social justice and policy?
I think it relates a lot to how I grew up. All the issues that I care about, I care about because they're personal to me. My parents immigrated to America. I was born here, and I'm first–generation, low–income (FGLI). Growing up, things weren't always super easy, but my family made it work. Coming to Penn, the differences between students are laid bare very quickly, so you see how privileged students have an upper hand in a lot of ways. FGLI students have to catch up and oftentimes learn a lot of things for themselves. I immediately wanted to get involved in things like the Undergraduate Assembly (UA) because it was a way to advocate for my fellow students. It's tough sometimes, because as a student, you're dealing with these things actively. You're trying to keep up in school, and you're trying to keep up with other personal obligations, but you're also trying to help other people at the same time. It can be tough, but it's always super rewarding to feel that you're giving back to your community and hopefully making things easier for the students who will come after you. That's always been the motivation: my friends and peers.
How have your academic interests influenced your involvements outside of school?
I decided that my focus in philosophy, politics, and economics (PPE) would be on inequality and the different ways that it manifests. I took classes on incarceration, wealth, and health. I wanted to have the facts of inequality, because that's also what I hope to work on in my professional career. It's all very intertwined, because even though I had my personal experience, it's good to learn about other groups and get the bigger picture.
Regarding my minor, I started out just pursuing an Arabic certificate because I grew up speaking Arabic but wasn't able to read or write—which is pretty common for a lot of second–generation immigrants. One time I was in a meeting with the director of the Middle East Center, and he told me to pursue the Middle Eastern studies minor instead. I was thinking about it, and it made a lot of sense because just learning the language on its own doesn't really give you a lot. I wanted to also learn the culture and the history of where I come from, because again, as someone who grew up in America, I felt disconnected from that sometimes. The Middle Eastern community is what I care a lot about, because in the United States, we're not as organized as other minorities and we're often overlooked. I wanted to learn what our specific needs are, so that [it can be] a group I can hopefully advocate for in my career later.
Tell us about the Penn Egyptian Society.
First of all, it was not my idea so I’m not going to take credit for it. Nour Aboelez (C ‘23) is amazing, and she really spearheaded this [group]. It was born during COVID–19, which is a tough time for clubs. Egyptian students at Penn were one of the bigger groups of Middle Eastern students, and there's also a lot of variation [within them]. I think the Egyptian Society was born out of a desire to bring us all together, because we have the Arab Student Society already, but sometimes you just want to be with your own people. Plus, we have a lot of fun together.
For me, being on the board was important, because I wanted to represent what maybe an uncommon Egyptian student looks like. When I first got to Penn and I first went to the Arab Student Society, I didn't necessarily feel like I fit in there. I didn't feel as Egyptian sometimes, even from something like not being as good at the language. I wanted to be on the board because I knew there were other students who felt the same way that I did, and I wanted them to know that this could be a space for them, too. I also really wanted to do more collaborations with other kinds of groups, because Middle Eastern people in general can kind of stick to ourselves. It's true for a lot of minorities. Egypt is also interesting because we're on the African continent, but we tend to associate more with the Arab world. I've made so many friends from other African countries, and we tend to have so much in common. It's a lot of shared cultural values and we have similar upbringings, so I really wanted to do more collaborations with other African student groups. We’re always able to learn about each other and come out with new friends. That's something that was important to me.
What’s your most memorable experience at Penn?
Hey Day. I really just loved being together with everyone. I had a first–year hall reunion that day. I saw people I hadn't seen in so long and it really was very nostalgic. After COVID–19, I was so glad that Class Board was able to put that together, because it was stressful for them. It was just a lot of fun because it was reconnecting with old friends. It finally started to set in that it was senior year and we made it, because Penn has been a long four years. You know, it hasn't been easy, and it was just a real celebration of us and everything we've been through.
What was your biggest struggle in balancing everything?
I think my struggle is that I really like putting people first in my life, so if a friend needs something, it's always gonna be that I want to help that friend. Also, a lot of the time my clubs started to feel more important than classes because I was so invested in them. Being in college, you should be a student first. That's why you're here. I think this is something a lot people struggle with. You start to get stretched in a lot of ways.
I have my personal life, and it was tough [to balance], especially when I was in a more public position. Sometimes your clubs can start to feel like a job. They start to take a lot of hours, so finding time for yourself can be really hard. Finding time to do nothing can be hard. Obviously Penn is a really social place—there's always something going on, and learning to say no is tough. That's something I still struggle with.
Also, just finding your place when you first get here is tough. Even though we all come in with set goals and passions, there's a lot of noise, and I feel like you have to ask yourself, “What do I really want to do? What do I really care about?” Obviously it's okay if you change your mind, but I feel like you have to really dig deep to find your footing. That was something that I really had to think about. Finding the communities where I felt like I belonged is what helped me get through it. You come to Penn and you see the huge range of people, and it's easy to walk out on Locust and feel like you shouldn't be here, so finding those people that make you feel like you should be here is really important.
How do you feel you have influenced Penn’s atmosphere over the last four years?
I think something that I'm really proud of is that when I first got here, I wouldn't say there were a lot of FGLI students involved in student government. I knew of a couple and I met them early on, and they were [the ones who] encouraged me to get involved. As I’ve gained leadership [roles], I feel like I've seen both more Egyptians and more Arab students getting involved in student government. That’s something really cool that I feel like maybe I influenced in some way. I can't be sure, but it's really cool to see that something I was scared to do and had a lot of doubts about, now more people are doing it. It's not just like that there's one Arab student anymore. There are like four or five, which is really awesome.
Being in UA with Mercedes Owens (C ‘21), who was the president, was huge, because I remember when we first got elected, there was this immediate pressure that we were gonna be able to do things that no one was able to do before us, because of the representation that we brought as students of color and as women. I think we were given a lot of opportunities that other UA duos don't get, just because I feel like there was some more trust there, and we did have the personal connection to a lot of these communities and issues. It was a little daunting at first, but I think we were able to pull off some really cool initiatives. Particularly [regarding] students of color out there—because we often do feel overlooked at Penn—it's been getting way better over my time here. I think what we really championed was evening out the experience, and not just in academic ways, but also making sure that FGLI students and students of color can get the social experience that Penn promises, and that they're supported and able to do their best. That was really cool. I would hope that we kind of impacted that.
What’s next for you after Penn?
Your guess is as good as mine at the moment. I would like to go into government. I think being in student government got me used to having those channels to solve problems and having access to important people. I'd like to work in policy, either doing social welfare policy or immigration policy someday. I want to be able to make life easier for people who look like me and for people who come from similar backgrounds as me. The hope is that I'll be in Washington, D.C. for a few years. The dream would be working for some place like Health and Human Services in the federal department. If you guys are reading this…
Last song you listened to? “Toot It Up” by Sally Sossa and Flo Milli. I gotta prepare for Spring Fling.
Death row meal? Kebab hala. It’s my favorite thing that my mom makes. It’s basically beef stew with rice, and it’s just so warm and comforting.
Favorite study spot? Sixth floor of Van Pelt.
There are two types of people at Penn… Those who never leave campus and those who do.
And you are? The person who does. You have to!