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The Front of the Bus

Where I come from, women don’t go to college.

I was raised as an ultra-Orthodox Jew. So I was expected to marry as young as possible, to have as many children as possible. To spend my life caring for my husband and children.

There’s no room in that life for college or a career.

Shakespeare wrote, “To thine own self be true.” But he didn’t mention how hard that is to do when you’re risking disappointment, disapproval, maybe even ostracism from your family.

For a while, I did what I was supposed to do. I got married at 19, became a stay-at-home mom at 20. I changed diapers and marinated chicken and tried to ignore my individuality.

But I couldn’t ignore it. Finally, when I was 27, I decided I would go to Rutgers University to earn a degree in journalism. I felt I was following the lead of Rosa Parks. I was no longer willing to sit in the back of the bus.

So how did my loved ones react to my announcement that I would become the first member of my family to go to college?

It wasn’t pretty.

Journalist Theodore White said, “To go against the dominant thinking of your friends, of most of the people you see every day, is perhaps the most difficult act of heroism you can perform.”

It was difficult. But I enjoyed almost every minute of my college career.

For the first time in my life, I made friends with people from outside my community. A Latina girl 10 years younger than I. A student my age who serves as a Christian youth minister. A woman with whom I talked and laughed for an hour before she realized I was Jewish — and I realized she was Palestinian.

And then we shook hands and wondered why we had been told to hate each other.

I took a class called The Arab-Israeli Conflict. One hundred students in the class, almost evenly divided between Jews and Arabs. Suddenly I was exposed to a completely different viewpoint of the conflict.

I’ll never forget this one Muslim student I met in that class. She wore a headscarf, and at the time I still wore the wig that is required of married women in ultra- Orthodox circles.

One day I said to her, “I’ll show you mine if you show me yours.” And we went to the ladies’ room and uncovered our hair. You should have seen the looks we got from the other women who walked into the room.

I got to meet my idol, investigative reporter Seymour Hersh. He came to Rutgers to give a speech, and one of my teachers brought me over to introduce me to him. A year and a half later, I still get breathless when I remember I shook hands and chatted with Seymour Hersh.

I wrote a story about male athletes at Rutgers in one of my journalism classes that gained national media attention. I was featured in newspapers and blogs and was interviewed on radio and TV. I even got to appear on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart on Comedy Central.

I earned college credit for interning as a reporter in the statehouse, for The Press of Atlantic City. For an aspiring reporter, that internship was the equivalent of an aspiring singer winning an audition at the Metropolitan Opera.

I am graduating today, but already I’ve found a job I love. I am a reporter for the Asbury Park Press, the third-largest paper in New Jersey. I cover the town of Jackson, which happens to be, geographically, the third-largest municipality in New Jersey.

My family is not here today, except for my two daughters — Chaya Sara, who’s 11, and Avigial, who’s 7.

Still, I have never for a moment regretted my decision to move to the front of the bus.

Author Robert Louis Stevenson said, “To know what you prefer, instead of humbly saying ‘amen’ to what the world tells you you ought to prefer, is to have kept your soul alive.”

Today I challenge everyone here to ask yourself: Are you living your life the way you prefer? Are you keeping your soul alive?

And if the answer is no, I dare you to stop saying “amen” to the world. I dare you to be you. No matter what the consequences.

Fraidy Reiss delivered the 2007 student commencement address at Rutgers University, having completed her degree with honors.