My name is Mashal Sherzad, and from fifth through eighth grades I had the beautiful opportunity of attending Friends School of Minnesota and being part of a community which, to this day, has remained my rock.

The world outside of Friends School held a number of revelations for me. I attended another private school for high school, a privileged institution with many opportunities—but for a low income student of color, those opportunities oftentimes felt like a double-edged sword. I was met with Islamophobic language from fellow students, with one classmate defining “terrorist” as “Middle Eastern people,” and another advising me to “go back to where you came from.”

I was raised as a pacifist. At FSM my gentle nature and affectionate personality were, without a doubt, embraced and nurtured. I learned how to grapple with conflict, how to use effective and kind communication with those around me, and to listen to my heart at all times. I was my own advocate because I felt my community members, regardless of age, advocating for me. To leave and be met with animosity was disheartening.

I navigated the hallways of my new school with anger at first. I then felt an overwhelming need to feel included in this community that seemed to reject me. I started to tell people I was not Muslim. I started to straighten my hair. I bought new clothes. I tried so hard for people to see me as an equal.

But this never happened at Friends School. I never felt the need to assimilate because there was, and still is, a shared understanding that we are all worthy in our own way, no matter what. I think the most precious of gifts, looking back on my life thus far, is to know what it’s like to be valued for exactly who you are. At FSM, I never had a doubt of my worth. I still consider my best friends from middle school to be my best friends today, and I believe this is due to our being socialized with the same values and loving ways. The tenets this school abides by create individuals who will be integral in the formation of a just world, now more than ever.

I graduated from Hamline University. My social and academic skills have deep roots in this wonderful sanctuary that is Friends School of Minnesota. My parents can attest to my utmost gratitude for their enrolling me here all those years ago, because I know I will contribute my values of peace, love, and more to wherever my path takes me. I will reap the benefits of my Friends School of Minnesota experience for a lifetime, I am sure of it.

Thank you for loving me for who I am, and helping me to do the same. Thank you for shaping me into someone who loves, learns, and aims for the sky.

Thank you for believing in me.