Growing up in South Africa, Saaliha Jaffer was fortunate to experience a relatively comfortable upbringing.
“I attended two model C schools, which in a South African context are semi-private schools that used to be whites-only schools during Apartheid, but thankfully aren’t segregated like that anymore,” she says. “I also did a bunch of extracurricular activities, played the piano, and went to university. I never felt different, nor was I treated as such, for being Muslim, Indian, or a woman.”
As a child, Saaliha didn't reflect much on her identity, despite recognizing that her experience differed from others. It wasn’t until she joined 2U Cape Town that she really began to consider how her ethnicity and religion impact her professional life.
Saaliha was encouraged to apply by her aunt, who completed an executive education course powered by 2U. Initially, she felt out of place as one of the only Indian and Muslim women in the Learning Design department in hijab, but the warmth and accepting nature of her colleagues quickly made her feel welcome.
“One of the greatest joys I’ve experienced is when my colleagues want to learn more about my culture and religion,” says Saaliha. “Even though I’m a minority in such a big department, I never feel like I’m simply there for 2U to be fair and inclusive. The company makes a deliberate effort to foster inclusivity, and there’s a genuine respect for each other's differences here.”
In honor of Asian Pacific Islander (API) Heritage Month, we sat down with Saaliha to learn more about her experience as a course iterations officer, the joys of belonging to 2U’s Asian Pacific Islander Network (APIN), and her advice for other API professionals considering a career at 2U.
Saaliha on graduation day at the University of Cape Town, where she earned her undergraduate degree in Social Sciences
Thanks so much for taking the time to speak with us today, Saaliha. Can you start by explaining what you do and how you incorporate your passion and experience into supporting 2U’s mission?
Sure! As a course iterations (CI) officer, I help maintain our courses to ensure that students have access to relevant and evergreen content that’s beneficial to them. Enhancing the student experience allows me to apply my passion for and my experience in education and learning design to my daily job.
For me and my fellow CI officers, no two days are the same. We work on multiple projects simultaneously, from shorter projects like backlog tasks to longer projects like evaluations and reviews. Our days combine time management and problem solving.
It sounds like you and your team play an important role in ensuring the high quality of 2U-powered courses. In honor of API Heritage Month, we’d love to hear more about your experience as a member of the API community in Cape Town. What are the greatest joys you’ve experienced personally and professionally, and what changes do you think are still needed in the working world to foster equity and inclusion?
I love working on a diverse team while striving to meet my personal goals. My current team is predominantly female, and most of our managers are women of color. As a member of the API community, I love being led by such empowering and intelligent women.
In relation to my identity as a Muslim, it was also a huge joy when our project management team asked me to speak about the holiday of Ramadan. And as a Muslim and Indian woman, I was honored to speak to my department about intersectionality during our diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) storytelling series last year.
While I’m so grateful for my wonderful team at 2U, I think the broader working world still needs more opportunities for people to learn about different religions, cultures, ethnicities, and sexualities. This will help more people understand how to respect and communicate with their colleagues based on how they identify.
All the friends pictured with Saaliha and her husband on their wedding day are Saaliha's 2U colleagues, which she says "really speaks to the multicultural friendships that I’ve fostered at 2U. They’re all amazing humans!"
Couldn’t agree more. We can all benefit from opportunities to learn more about one another. What’s the greatest lesson you’ve learned as an API professional at 2U?
The greatest lesson I’ve learned is to stay true to myself. In other settings, professional or otherwise, I’ve heard of instances where people have had to downplay or change aspects of their sexuality, culture, gender, education, ethnicity, class, language, age, or ability in order to fit in.
Every day, I find myself on a team that genuinely cares about and respects me. I am comfortable sharing aspects of my life, my culture, and my religion with my team and colleagues. I’m in a space where I don’t have to be anyone but myself, and I strive to maintain this type of inclusivity every day.
What would you say are some of the best ways that “non-API” allies—at 2U or anywhere—can support API professionals in their everyday interactions and professional relationships?
I’d say the best way someone can be an ally is to think before they speak. People often have the best intentions, but it’s easy for something to come across as offensive or degrading when something is not said in a considerate way. That said, asking questions is a really good approach to learn from API professionals, in order to avoid making assumptions or being uncertain about something. For people who inquire about things in order to truly learn more and appreciate our various cultures, that sense of bravery in asking is very much appreciated!
"Henna is a huge part of Indian culture that I wanted to include on my wedding day," Saaliha says of the designs she had an artist create on her hands. "Whenever I've had henna patterns for the holiday of Eid, my colleagues have always expressed their admiration. It's wonderful to be able to physically represent such talented Asian women."
As you know, APIN’s theme for this year’s API Heritage Month is “representASIAN.” How is this month and theme personally meaningful to you?
My ethnicity and culture are incredibly important to me, and this theme for observance allows me to feel seen. Having a space to speak to my experience is incredibly meaningful, because it truly matters when people are interested in our stories beyond just our daily work lives.
Thanks so much for sharing your experience with all of us, Saaliha! Before we wrap up, do you have any advice for other API professionals interested in joining 2U?
Stay true to who you are. At 2U, DEI is not just a corporate catchphrase. There is a genuine respect for our differences. Race, religion, ethnicity, gender, and sexuality do not need to be downplayed in order for you to be accepted or taken seriously here.
Also for API Heritage Month: Meet Mel Lu, global co-chair of APIN.
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