After 200-plus minutes of class before our interview on Thursday, Taraun Frontis, a candidate for Undergraduate Government of Boston College president and CSOM ’19, was finally able to relax. In a desolate Chocolate Bar, he sat back with his shoulders at attention, digging into a steak sandwich after telling me about his busy schedule of six classes and 15 hours of work, plus his extracurriculars. So while Frontis chewed and recuperated, I let Aneeb Sheikh, his running mate for UGBC executive vice president and MCAS ’20, go first.
Born in Pakistan, Sheikh moved to Dubai with his family when he was 6 and enrolled in a British school, where he was educated in the tradition of the Royal Empire.
“In those eight hours [in school] it was like I was in Britain,” Sheikh said. “And also, I’m a Muslim, that’s pretty important.”
In high school, Sheikh read incessantly. He credits The Autobiography of Malcolm X, a favorite of his to this day, for introducing him to political resistance.
“My screen saver is [Malcolm X],” he said. “He was very unapologetic and unapologetically Muslim and reading him led me to Muhammad Ali, who was also unapologetically Muslim.”
Sheikh thought the struggles of these great men were akin to the identity crisis he was undergoing as a half-Indian, half-Pakistani, born in Pakistan and the living in Dubai while also holding American citizenship and attending a British school.
“In Pakistan when I would see my cousins, they [would] have a bond to the country, whereas I didn’t feel as attached to it,” Sheikh said. “Once I was held at gunpoint in Pakistan and so I had lot of problems with [answering] ‘where do I call home?’”
When it came time to pick a college, Sheikh knew he wanted a school that would position him for a career in public service. He read about BC’s elite political science department, and after learning John Kerry attended BC Law School, he was sold.
Sheikh arrived in the United States in Sep 2016. Then-candidate Donald Trump had promised a temporary halt on travel from a number of Muslim-majority countries until vetting procedures could be improved, and although Sheikh was coming from the United Arab Emirates, which has not been on any of the proposed bans, he sympathized with his brothers and sisters from Iraq, Iran, Syria, Yemen, Sudan, and Somalia.
“I had never been civically engaged in the sense of voting, because in Dubai I can’t vote. It’s not a democracy, no one can vote,” Sheikh said. “But in the U.S. I was becoming more engaged civically, and the election of Trump really let me down because that meant there were 65 million people in this country, that I was calling home, who thought I shouldn’t be here, who wanted to kick me out.”
After growing up in an Islamic theocracy, the first difficult lesson Sheikh had to learn as an American was how beautifully free, yet menacing the nature of the First Amendment can be.
Sheikh continued to toil with this lesson as his freshman year progressed. He found students to generally be quite welcoming and friendly.
“I saw myself as me being here is educating them about Islam and hopefully me being here will make them think differently about Muslims in general. But then Trump issued the Muslim Ban.”
Sheikh was on a Freshman League retreat last January and remembers seeing on the news that people were being held up in airports. He called his parents and told them to go to the airport to be with his brothers and sisters.
“I remember wishing I could go to the airport because my community was under attack,” Sheikh said.
Sheikh observed that everyone was talking about Muslims in policy talks but nobody was talking to Muslims. He believed that if there were more Muslims in politics, through more representation there would be less dehumanization.
That same semester, Sheikh was enrolled in an Islamic civilization course. The class was scheduled for Monday, Wednesday, Friday, from 1:00-1:50, in the middle of Friday prayer. Sheikh was able to receive religious exemption for his absence every Friday. But the fact that a class on Islam was scheduled during Friday prayer, Sheikh thought, exemplified a Eurocentric mindset.
“[The professor] was coming and talking with the mindset that Islam is more backward and less developed than the West,” Sheikh said. “[The professor] would quote the Quran out of context and make basic factual errors, something I’ve noticed so much.”
According to Sheikh, the professor claimed the Quran was ordered from longest book to shortest, and one of the last classes concluded that ISIS was indeed very Islamic.
“It wasn’t blatantly Islamophobic, it was more insidious, like ‘Islam is just not as developed, look at these barbaric practices,’” Sheikh said.
Sheikh did not allow one academic’s opinion to influence his relationship with his faith. He endured and enrolled in Muslims in American Society and Politics. In this class, Sheikh said, he sensed even more Islamophobia than in his freshman year class.
He took to Facebook to vocalize his concerns.
He posted: “I’m kinda in a state of shock right now. I just came out of a class where the professor made some deeply disturbing comments about Muslims and many of the students agreed. He said that if ‘someone I know died in 9/11, then I am justified in being suspicious about Muslims.’ Other comments made in the class were along the lines of: ‘Muslims are undermining American values’ ‘Muslims don’t have the right to first amendment if they don’t do their part’….”
As chair of AHANA+ Leadership Council, Frontis reached out and said he would make a statement.
ALC issued a statement in conjunction with the Muslim Student Association, and it was the beginning of a poignant political alliance between Frontis and Sheik.
Frontis grew up in central Harlem, on 129th and Lenox, near the famous soul food spot Sylvia’s Restaurant. He was educated exclusively in charter schools, and attended Democracy Prep on 120th St. and Frederick Douglass Blvd. for high school.
“The most diversity was two Vietnamese kids,” Frontis said.
Many of his teachers were Teach For America volunteers, so he did not see the same teachers for all four years. As he grew up, Frontis watched the gentrification process—the dilapidated lots of his childhood neighborhood were renovated and sold, unrecognizable to the eyes of any who grew up there.
“There’s a Whole Foods on 125th Street,” Frontis said.
When it came time to go through the college process, Frontis was privileged with a top-notch college counselor who went to Brown. Frontis narrowed it down to Occidental College on the West Coast and BC on the East Coast.
“When I was still on the fence about going to BC, my college counselor linked me to other black professionals and they just convinced me to come to BC,” Frontis said. “A district attorney from the Bronx called me [and] told me to go to BC, and I was convinced from there.”
Frontis is a first-generation college student and was invited to Keith A. Francis AHANA Weekend, where he met upperclassmen in ALC, some of whom, including Akosua Achampong, the current UGBC president and MCAS ’18, would eventually become his mentors once he arrived on campus.
“I saw a big presence of like a family for the AHANA+ community,” Frontis said. “It was easy for me to reach out to upperclassmen, to reach out to my peers.”
When Frontis arrived on campus, he was part of the Multicultural Living Experience (MLE).
“It’s catered for people who wanted to be more aware of their identities on campus and engage in a dialogue based a dialogue on that,” he said.
Shortly after arriving on campus, Frontis was chosen to be a freshman rep for United Front.
“We’d have potlucks and talk about certain issues,” he said. “Whether it be based around hip-hop or food or culture of the black community.”
It was Frontis’s first time serving on an executive board and he loved it. He befriended some sophomores, and when it came time to figure out housing, he received permission to live with his upperclassman friends in Vandy. He formed a tight connection with the other seven guys, and the dorm came to be a safe space for him to retreat from the rest of the world.
As a sophomore, he was a Bowman advocate for Campus of Difference. As a fellow, he went to Cheverus and Medeiros halls to conduct uncomfortable conversations on race and identity.
His activism work led him to run for the role of United Front liaison. In his time on ALC, Frontis developed a close friendship with Achampong. She has served as an encouraging voice for Frontis and Sheikh.
“I’ve always been, like, under her,” Frontis said. “She’s always been that positive energy, that positive mentor. She’ll advise me to do this, encourage me to do that and always gives me critical feedback of how to navigate in this school.”
Then, when Achampong became UGBC president, it was uncertain who would run ALC, an office she once ran.
“For students of color and Muslim students to see that there are people in office who reflect many identities that intersect with marginal students on campus … allows people who identify with them to think ‘that’s something I can do,’” Achampong said.
“I was like ‘Who’s gonna run ALC now that you’re not there?’ And she was like ‘You.’ [Michael Osaghae and I] decided to run together, and we won,” Frontis said.
In the least diverse place both candidates have ever been, they have found unity in talking about difference. The AHANA+ community has provided a chance to discuss identity issues, even ones that may not personally impact them.
“White students need to understand that they need to be in spaces where issues regarding students of color are being discussed, but they’re not necessarily speaking,” said Sheikh.
Frontis and Sheikh say they want to speak for the forgotten students on this campus.
“If marginalized students win, we all win,” Sheikh said.
Photo Courtesy of Katie Genirs