Ume Ali

Ume Ali

Dean's Scholar

English/Creative Writing
College of Humanities & the Arts


Why did you choose your major?

My parents had wanted me to attend med school, so I initially became a Biology/Chemistry major as a compromise. The liberal arts had never been considered, though I could have been a poster child for creativity. I had been writing intermittently since middle school, and continued to suppress the electricity that shot through me as I touched pen to paper. For years, I let myself engage in an unfulfilling and dysfunctional marriage to the sciences; literature and writing became unrequited loves. One day, I decided to cut out the personal, cultural, and familial expectations that were nudging me out of my own life story. Eight years, two major-changes, and three children later I can vouch for choosing a major that will keep you awake, wanting more.


What does receiving this particular award mean to you?

I am honored to be receiving this award, and relieved that I have proof of the hard work. As humans we are most critical of ourselves, and although I always knew I was pouring myself into my degree, this award makes it official so that even I can believe it! This award honors my family for enabling me in my endeavors as well as keeping me anchored.


Who has been influential in your life and/or who has contributed to your academic success?

My list of acknowledgments is endless, but there are a few people without whom my career would have been an abandoned dream. I am thankful to my husband for pushing me to pursue my true passion, funding the decade-long stint, and tolerating my emotional and physical evanescence. My mother, who has been "mom" to my children these past few years, has nurtured my family endlessly while I was pursuing my dreams. Perhaps the greatest support came from my children who have also sacrificed the most, always on the other side of a locked door while "mommy studied". 

I'd also like to thank my mentors and professors at SJSU for catapulting me into my currant state of bliss. If it hadn't been for Professor Persis Karim, in particular, there may not have been any story to tell. Professor Karim has been a mentor and friend for almost six years; she guided me through the first poems I wrote, encouraging me to pursue my interests. She has taught me a great deal in the past few years and I am thankful for her inspiring presence in my life. I would also like to acknowledge Professor Cathy Miller for all that she has taught me about taking my writing beyond the scope of academia.


Did you overcome any hardships or adversities in your life that have helped shape who you are today?  And if so, could you please briefly elaborate?

When I attempted changing majors from Chemistry to English, I was initially denied on account of being a senior with over 90 units. I was heartbroken but knew that I had no other choice; I could not go back to chemistry. My only other option was to get a raincheck on the whole college degree thing. Professor Karim (my counselor at the time) advised me to appeal the decision. With her help, and another slew of paperwork, I assembled an appeal package and submitted it. I was told that my appeal would hang in limbo while I took one full semester of english courses and proved my worth as a Humanities student. During this period of time, I had no idea whether any of my desires would come to fruition. Almost a year after appealing, my major was officially changed. Even as I write these words, I am exhaling with residual relief.


What would you say to other students to encourage or inspire them to attain academic excellence?

Some mantras that brought me here: Listen to everyone (you'll get advice from the whole world and their mother), but follow your own heart. You can't adopt someone else's dream. At 3am, the night before a midterm, someone else is not going to wake up and give you a pep-talk. So choose a career path wisely and stick to it like rubber-cement. Fake it 'till you make it. Pretend like you're already the nurse, oil tycoon, software engineer, or stellar honors student that you aspire to become. Careers manifest within us long before the diploma is even printed.


How do you envision yourself in 5-10 years?

In 5-10 years I hope to publish both poetry and prose pieces in various literary magazines, and hopefully a bestselling novel as well. I would also like to be teaching creative writing in high school or college.


A few words from her nominating professor:

Ume Ali first appeared in my classes nearly four years ago. She was young, enthusiastic, and very intelligent. She clearly identified herself early on as someone who loved to read and had a passion for writing. She first appeared in my English 71 Introduction to Creative Writing class. She had, at that point, two small children, and was attempting to change her major from Chemistry to English. Ume felt that while she was driven at first to study the sciences --- a child of South Asian immigrants who emphasized the value of education and the need for a practical degree, I could see early on that Ume loved literature. After that first semester, Ume disappeared for a time. She came back a year later and ended up in two of my classes, English 169 and English 130. In both these classes, "Ethnicity in American Literature" and "Poetry Workshop" Ume was a dedicated student. Even with two small children, and later, I discovered, a baby on the way, she kept at it. During the spring of 2012, she gave birth to her third child, and while I was amazed that she finished out the semester, I was even more amazed when she came to see me later that semester determined to change her major from Chemistry to English. Although she had been told by numerous campus advisors that it was too late and she'd reached her unit limit, I agreed to work on her behalf to get my college to allow her to make the change. It was not easy. I had to write numerous letters, and she had to appeal to many different individuals and department heads to convince them that it made no sense to force her to keep a major that she had enough units in to graduate in--rather than pursue her dream of becoming an English major, and ultimately a writer. I was amazed at Ume's tenacity and commitment. She kept coming back more determined with each rejection. Eventually, this past fall, she got the green light to graduate with a degree in English. In the last year, she's published numerous poems and essays in national magazines, has served as one of the editors of Reed Magazine, and has maintained the welfare of her family and husband. She also won the Undergraduate Research Award and has been working closely with me on a project that is both personal and research based about the rights of women in Saudi Arabia. She is an excellent writer, a dedicated student and she's shown how incredibly persistent and hardworking she is. She exemplifies the best of our students--particularly those who have the many financial, personal and family challenges, and despite this persevere and excel.

- Professor Persis Karim