This is not the life of a typical American college student. This is the life of student-athlete Dina Maged Hegab from Cairo, Egypt. You can find her swinging rackets on the tennis court, creating designs, or kneeling down in prayer behind the lockers in The Warehouse.
As a devout Muslim, Dina prays five times a day, does not drink alcohol, and is waiting to kiss or have sex until marriage. She has lived her entire adolescent life in Cairo, Egypt, but chose to overcome her fears of coming to the United States.
“Back at home, if you see someone kissing or drinking, I feel like they’re the different ones. But here, I am the different one,” Dina says.
She chose Syracuse University for the school’s top environmental and interior design program and its Division 1 women’s tennis team — and its Muslim coach, who made her feel comfortable being who she is.
Before she came to Syracuse, Dina was scared of living most of the year in a completely different culture. She says her teammates and supportive friends have made her feel comfortable in her own skin, despite being surrounded by people with completely different values.
“I think it’s better than I expected. I feel that people here are respectful, and my teammates always understand when I need to pray. They understand my culture and how I am very conservative. So I feel like people are not judging me,” Dina says.
Dina does not wear a hijab, and worries that if she would, people would treat her differently. She chooses to not wear the traditional Muslim veil because of her athletic training twice a day, during which she would always have it to take it off. She thinks that one should either wear the hijab all the time or not at all.
“I can’t drink. I can still have fun, I can still party, I can do anything I want. But I just can’t drink, and I take care of what I wear,” Dina says. “Yes I’m not wearing the hijab, but I still have some limits that I can not and do not want to exceed.”
Nonetheless, she recognizes the current polarised political climate and judgement towards Muslims in the United States, and is sometimes wary when meeting new people.
“Up until now, I’m sometimes scared to say I’m a Muslim. People who don’t know me, I don’t know how they’re going to think. I always prefer to pray in my room, I never go and say I’m a Muslim to everyone,” Dina says. “Even my roommate doesn’t know I’m a Muslim because I never pray in front of her. I’m afraid of not just the judgement but how this might change how people treat me.”
Some of the limits of her Muslim religion constrict Dina in many ways, but throughout her semesters at SU, she has been bending the rules a little bit.
“I feel like a small example of that would be hugging guys. Back home I never hug guys, but here maybe the mindset changed,” Hegab says.
“Sometimes I feel like it’s hard to 100% follow the religion, cause the situations are different,” Hegab says, adding that if it doesn’t affect you in a bad way and the person does not mean it in a flirtatious way, then it is okay to make slight changes to the way she acts.
The sophomore says she is continuing to stick to her basic principles and rules, but is willing to be open-minded and flexible in some situations.
“I like who I am and what I’m doing and my religion, but when you’re surrounded by people who are completely different, you feel like you are the different one.” Dina says, as she recollects how she was worried about coming to SU. “I was wondering how I was going to change in these four years.”
Dina also says she is not hiding herself as much as when she first came, and is becoming more social as she is becoming more confident being herself amongst friends.
Over five thousand miles away from home, Dina strives to keep her culture and religion close to her, no matter how her surroundings and new experiences influence her.
Gabriela Knutson is a junior studying broadcast and digital journalism and geography at Syracuse University.