Deja Vu: Salwah Chowdhury: The proud witness of MUSE’s Birth

For every issue, we get the opportunity to interview a ULAB alumni who has made ULAB proud. For this issue, we were fortunate to hear the story of Salwah Chowdhury. Currently working as the Assistant Coordinator, Secretariat for Shuchona Foundation, Miss. Chowdhury’s journey will provide an inspiring tale to all students. Hear her story from her mouth below, which was made possible by our sub-editor Sumaiya Swati Udita

I was born in Makkah, Saudi Arabia, and we are a family of four, consisting of my mother, my father, and my sister, who is seven years older than me. We had to shift a few times from Saudi Arabia to Bangladesh and vice versa, between 1998 and 2003, when I had just started grade four. We had Bengali and Arabic in school, but we studied the rest of the subjects in English. Finally when we moved to Bangladesh, we settled in Narayanganj and I was admitted to an English-medium school owing to my mothers’s concern about my weakness in Bengali. I had a hard time in school initially because I was bullied very badly; peers would call me “habibi” and other names, and the girls did not want to be friends with me; only a small group of students welcomed me. I continued to be chastised for my bengali accent and my dresses, and this went for two or three years. Eventually things became fine and I made many friends. 

To describe my childhood, I was very disturbed and a timid one. My mother thwarted me from hanging around with my friends, and that deterred me from exploring the world. Slowly, I became very rebellious, and I developed the tendency to always prove her wrong. Although I was not “the good student”, I was moderately at a higher level and would often remain among the top three students of my class. 

When I was studying for my A Level, I faced a big challenge regarding my choices for education. My mother had told me to opt either for  Economics or English. My father and older sister, being pharmacists, fueled my curiosity towards pursuing my career as a medical personnel. My grades spoke a different tale. I obtained an A in Economics, and had comparatively poorer grades in the science subjects, and a C in English. Amidst all these, I decided to follow my passion, and told my father that I wanted to study English for my higher studies. He consulted one of his colleagues, whom we lost recently during the pandemic, and he suggested ULAB. I had my admission test at the university campus, which was the research building at the time, and I really liked it. 

My first class, which was probably in October of 2011, was with Mohit Sir and I absolutely loved his class. After I returned home and told my father about the teacher, my father immediately recognised him as being [Prof.] Mohit Ul Alam and that he was the departmental head at the time. In that class, I felt a little lonely as I would watch other students talking like they had known each other for so long. Then I met a girl, whom I got to know through a pair-work. Her name was Sara. We later became best friends, and this is how my amazing journey at ULAB started.

I was a very quiet student, who went unnoticed until our midterm because of my and Sara’s [that best friend] handwriting’s font size, we never required extra sheets in our exams, unlike other students. We would be done within two pages, but we were able to score good marks. When our result of that trimester was published, I remember travelling for almost 6-7 hours, as the flyover was not there back then, and I had to change vehicles from various locations. I discovered that I have achieved a CGPA of 4.00 out of 4. I had no idea that my destiny had already been set by that sheet of paper, and I realised that when your passion matches your area of study, that is when you stop caring about your result and care about what you love, instead. 

|Sara and I left no departmental events to volunteer, and we slowly began to volunteer in external events. I remember working for “Golden Bough”. One of our faculty members, Nasrin Ma’am, told us about “Golden Bough”, whose four-page length resembled a pamphlet of students’ works prominently, and informed us that we had been selected as its editors, and we were so happy!  The “Golden Bough” transitioned into what is now known as MUSE, and this happened through us. The final touch into this transition was added by the joining of [Prof.] Shamsad [Mortuza] Sir, and though we continued to work in our previous post, we later began working as the sub-editors. 

I made it a point to involve myself in various extracurricular activities. I became the vice president of Language Club. I was in the debate club for a short period of time. I showed my mother instances of extracurricular activities adding to weight to one’s CV and how important these activities were, and you can imagine how active I was! When I was in my third year, I was offered for internship by Bengal Lights, which has now become ULAB Dhaka Translation Centre, and the person who offered me said that she really wanted to know “who this Salwah is” and I was also recommended by the Department, and another senior also suggested me, and through that, we organised the Literary Conclave at ULAB.

At the end of 2020, there was news of competition at ULAB’s alumni page, where countries like Bangladesh, Pakistan, UK, India, participated. It was organised by Sampad Arts, entitled: “My City, My Home”. I remember composing a poem within a very short time. Suddenly In March I got a call from a person named Shahzia Omar, who informed me that my poem had been selected.

Before starting my education, I was worried that there would be a lot of talk in the house about my decision to study English, as my family is filled with doctors. I was afraid of being the odd one out. However the decision has really worked in my favour. Because I could speak and write in English fluently, I was able to excel at an advertising job and work in a communication department, as well as work as a writer. I felt confident, since I had experience in three different fields, and I got the confidence from my English major in Language, and I did my masters in Literature, and after much research, I found that ULAB is the only one to be offering creative writing as a discipline in Bangladesh. You can be so diverse and versatile if you study in English, but you must have the energy and the experience, as studying only one subject will not produce sufficient output.

However, I must confess a regret.  As students, we would believe that language is a “safe” choice for your future. Our peers, seniors and even teachers added to the notion that having a language major would be beneficial in terms of research and job prospects. It was only later that I realised how it did not matter where I pursued my major as much as I had imagined. I regret not graduating with a major in Literature, which was my true passion  instead of majoring in Language. After graduation, I was in a complicated situation as there was a sudden pressure to get married, for which I could not continue, otherwise I could have seen myself being the student of the Masters programme’s first batch, as the programme was introduced at the time of my graduation.

 It was at that time that I got a job in Grey Dhaka, an advertising agency, through a friend and I worked there for two and a half months. I helped them to organise two major events, and handled clients. They were looking for students who were good in English, and so my background and results favoured me. Back then I had nothing notable to add in my CV. Although this was an unfavourable experience for me, I would try to make the best of that opportunity. Even though I received a few job offers in between, I would be rejected as soon as the employee would come to know my address. 

Then patience and hard work paid off as I received a mystery call   for an interview, where I was not even told the office’s name. Then I discovered that it was for Meena Bazar, under GEMCON’s food and agriculture department, located at Dhanmondi-27. They wanted an intern for their Business Development Executive. I was very confident, in the sense that I was in a terrible plight personally, and I had no significant professional experience, and I had nothing to lose.One of my colleagues at the time suggested that I do an MBA for the position. So I returned to ULAB to take my admission there for MBA, and things were completely  different this time. 

My ex-colleague and my mentor, who is my husband now,  received my CV through ULAB’s Career Service. This is actually how ULAB contributed to my marriage as well! When I was in Grey, the ULAB’s Career Service kept enquiring about my interest in jobs, and the same thing miraculously happened with Shuchona Foundation as well. 

I continued my MBA, and I changed my office and joined Shuchona simultaneously. In 2021, I got promoted to the assistant coordinator post in the Secretary department, which is equivalent to being assistant manager. So I was organising and coordinating events, I was writing letters, managing meetings, brochures, media briefs, social media contents, annual reports, etc, and all of these are under my supervision, and the team comprises my boss and myself- just the two of us running the Secretary department.

 My MBA was becoming so tedious for me, as I was not a business person at all, and I disliked the fact that I am still studying it, I would rant to my husband everyday about how less I would be complaining about it if I start doing my Masters in English, and he would comply with me. In 2019, I discovered that I was pregnant, which understandable led to some physical restrictions and changes. My expected date was at the same time as my Final Examination. In the middle of this situation, I delivered my daughter in December. I used to study in the hospital, and I sat for the examination when my daughter was only ten days old. She caught jaundice and was hospitalised, and I would print the slides and continue to study them in the hospital, and I sat for the examination in such a perilous situation. I am pleased to say that I was able to graduate with a CGPA of 3.9.

Then the covid hit in 2020. My daughter was only six months old and my husband became jobless. The entire family was dependent on my and my husband’s earnings. Amidst this, I told my husband that I want to do my Masters again in Literature, and he did not disagree with this. Had the situation been reversed, I would have shouted at him! That one year of my masters was amazing because I was writing fiction and non-fictions, and I wrote poetry without realising I was good at it

I did not encounter some of the familiar faces of my beloved teachers; I had to introduce myself to the new teachers . However, I went from being that person who disliked writing poems to the person loving it; now, whenever I feel sad, I compose poems for myself. Even though I do not publish it anywhere, it is a huge achievement to me. 

For my budding undergraduates and fresh graduates, if you wish to know more about my line of work, I will share some information. The criteria of eligibility in my job sector is pretty basic. Having a good result, garnering records for extracurricular activities, being an editor, and my positions and roles in the club helped me with my jobs. At present, I sit to take interviews, and I see how CGPA actually works, though exceptions are made by those who practised extracurricular activities extensively. However, a high CGPA is preferred nonetheless. It is laughable that we expect fresh graduates with two years of experience. Nowadays I see the TA circulars and had I seen them at my time, I definitely would have joined. CGPA matters, it is not true when everyones says it does not matter.

Besides academic endeavours, my first suggestion would be to be involved with ample extracurricular activities, actively and sincerely. This is because your position and  roles in crisis moments define your capabilities, and questions on such matters are common. Another of my tips is to be friendly and cooperative with others, if you expect the same from others. In such a competitive world, it becomes very hard to remain friendly, but I believe that what goes around, comes around. My father once said, “Always ask for help always. There are some who may reject you, but there are others waiting to be by your side”. 

There is a big taboo around graduating from public universities versus private universities. I once got to talk to a girl from Comilla University. I found that their semester does not end until a single text from the syllabus has been completed fully, whereas, the semesters at private universities end by hook or by crook, even though the particular text has not been completed. Such a thing happens because teachers of private universities have a huge workload for which, they often suggest alternative items of the text, and the students tend to depend on those alternatives rather than the original text, and they lose the ability to work hard, compared to students of public universities, as they are made to work very hard, and this gives them an extra advantage over students from private universities. Today, for instance, a colleague of mine enquired, “why did I study so hard in Dhaka University?” implying that she and I were receiving the same payment, despite our varying efforts.

When I first joined Shuchona, I was the only one joining from a private university-background, whereas the majority of the people came from public universities or with a foreign education-background. I knew my capabilities were being questioned behind my back due to my background and the bias around private universities. My husband had to face greater challenges than me, as he graduated from National University. In an ideal world, I would love to believe that everyone has equal opportunity and is not restricted by these harmful stereotypes. Reality is different.. If you wish to fight this stigma, start by expanding your skills by doing more courses because in today’s world, even a postdoctoral degree is considered to be just enough, whereas a Bachelors or a Masters degree would be considered prestigious in the past.

ULAB holds a special place in my heart,  some parts of ULAB’s AVs were actually shot on my own rooftop. I have even delivered the dialogue that I never really left ULAB in the video.  ULAB helped me to circulate my CV to two places, namely Shuchona and Meena Bazar, where I did not apply myself. ULAB also provided me with exciting  opportunities such as being the speaker for the orientation and getting to witness MUSE’s transformation. When one of its current sub-editors asks me for an interview, I feel so happy as I remember that I was in their shoes once.  I will let you in on a secret. Back in our time, there was always a cold war brewing between DEH and MSJ. It is so nice to see that the relationship between all the departments has become prosperous. Moreover,the launch of the Bangla Department is a proud moment for us all. Last but not least, I am grateful for the contribution ULAB has made in both my personal and professional life, and I thank ULAB from the bottom of my heart.

by Sumaiya Swati Udita