It was an incredible convocation! 30,000 people packed in the middle of the Morningside Campus of Columbia University, on New York’s Upper West Side. Families and friends from across the globe, cheering on the Grads. On the stage, we saw the President of Columbia University, Deans of the different programs, “Uncle Jeff” (what Sabrina and her classmates call their professor, the renowned development economist, Jeffrey Sachs) and other key Administrators. Graduates, resplendent in their Columbia blue gowns and caps, sat in their designated spots. Each school sported a symbol that they carried to differentiate themselves: the School of Dentistry had giant toothbrushes, the Business School had fake $100 bills, the Teachers College had apples, the Engineering School had giant inflatable hammers, and graduates from the School of International and Public Affairs (SIPA) carried the flags of their home countries. The atmosphere was charged with anticipation and excitement. It was unlike anything I had ever experienced. And my Sabrina Natasha Premji was right in the middle of this, graduating from SIPA with a Masters of Public Administration in Development Practice, a 2-year program.
Two years ago, I did not know if I would be alive to witness this milestone. When I was undergoing treatment for my two blood cancers, the thought of seeing Sabrina graduate was often what kept me going. There were last minute challenges that made me wonder if I would be able to attend the ceremony. Five days before we were to fly to New York, I was at the hospital getting a blood transfusion to boost my dangerously low 63 hemoglobin count. One day before the trip, I saw bleeding in my PICC line which freaked me out (turns out it was a blister beside the PICC line that was oozing blood). On the day of our flight, my oncologist had me go to the hospital in the morning to check my blood levels to see if I needed another blood or platelet transfusion. Miraculously, my hemoglobin climbed to an all-time high of 106, and I was cleared for travel!
Nagib and I flew to New York on Tuesday evening, where we met Sabrina, Shayne and Afzal (who had both travelled from Nairobi to celebrate Sabrina’s big day). The kids had planned the whole trip for us, and what a celebration it was!
We started Wednesday morning with breakfast at Padoca Bakery, café that specializes in unusual pastries and muffins. We had PDQ (Brazilian cheese bread made with Yuca flour), while sitting on a swing and admiring the tea-kettle shaped lights.
Then we made our way to Columbia, and walked with thousands of family and friends into a festive atmosphere, as the graduates were led in with the traditional graduation song.
The guest speaker for the big convocation was Ban Ki Moon, the Secretary General of the United Nations. His message to the students was the importance of being engaged and making a difference in matters that concern the world, from climate change to politics to the alleviation of poverty.
We had great seats, the clouds dissipated and we enjoyed the warmth of the mid-morning sun.
After a full morning, we celebrated by having lunch at Casa Agave, a Mexican restaurant in Hell’s Kitchen, where the server made the most divine guacamole right at our table (Holy Guacamole!). And then, Sabrina and Shayne surprised me with tickets to a Broadway show. Aladdin showed us ‘a whole new world’! And now I break out in Aladdin songs all the time (“Prince Ali, fabulous He, Ali Ababua….”).
We ended the perfect day with dinner at Proper West, a sports bar where we helped Shayne cheer on his Pittsburgh Penguins to victory.
Then, we got to do it all over again the next day, where 824 SIPA graduates from 79 countries, had their own Graduation ceremony, followed by a reception. When Sabrina’s name was called out, she forgot all about poise and decorum and ran across the stage where she was warmly hugged by SIPA’s Program Director. We got to be proud parents as a number of faculty told us they had a name for her: “Superstar” for the work she did at school and outside the program.
In the past two years, Sabrina balanced her Ivy-League education with co-founding a social enterprise, Kidogo Early Years, and serving as its Chief Exploration Officer. Her day generally started at 4 or 5 in the morning so she could attend meetings virtually to manage the 8-hour time difference between New York and Kenya. Between classes, she’d hop around the city, speaking at Acumen’s Partner Gathering one day and at the Rockefeller Foundation the next. On weekends, she traveled across the world, presenting at Harvard, judging case competitions in San Francisco, attending conferences in Johannesburg, Denmark and Beijing, pitching in Paris – and she’d arrive back in New York just in time to write her next exam. Often, Nagib & I couldn’t keep track of where our daughter was! And as if that wasn’t enough, she came home to Toronto to support me when I was diagnosed with breast cancer and started undergoing chemotherapy. I don’t think she slept very much in the past two years!
In the afternoon, Sabrina and Afzal had arranged for the photographer from their engagement photo-shoot to come and take commemorative pictures of us.
We celebrated the SIPA graduation by going to New York’s pre-eminent Peruvian restaurant, Pio Pio, for dinner, and having Mama Wuanita’s chicken with their famous green sauce. I made a case for staying a few more days in New York because I wanted to prolong this incredible feeling of euphoria. Alas, we had to come home on Friday as I had a bloodwork appointment in preparation for chemo number 4 (of 6) on Tuesday, after the long weekend. But, right now, I am giving all kinds of thanks to God for allowing me to be a witness to Sabrina’s graduation and whispering to her words I heard many parents proudly say : “You did it!”