Student Spotlight

Laela Shallal, MA Candidate in American Studies

Laela Shallal

Where did you grow up? 
Northern Virginia and Washington, DC.

What drew you to your field? 
Having the opportunity to take courses on multicultural issues and the unique American cross-cultural experience was particularly intriguing as a first-generation American whose parents were born in the Middle East. I mostly enjoy the experimental and methodologically diverse nature of the field. Being able to take courses in various departments—such as Middle Eastern, South Asian, and African Studies, and Anthropology—in addition to American Studies courses has been advantageous to my scholarly work.

How would you explain your current research to someone outside of your field? 
I’m researching the experience of Muslim-Americans serving in the US military after 9/11. It’s an overlooked topic that raises complicated questions about who is and is not considered an “American.”

What is your favorite thing about being a student at Columbia GSAS?
Many GSAS students have the flexibility to take courses outside our traditional field, so we gain exposure to new ideas, people, and conversations. And this may sound overly nerdy, but I am in love with Butler Library. It’s not exclusively for GSAS students—it’s just my favorite place to start or end a day.

What resources or opportunities that Columbia provides have been most valuable to you?
Having small class sizes has been a real benefit. I also have developed great relationships with some professors, and feel very supported by my program director and thesis advisor, Dr. Matthew Sandler.

Is there a common misconception about a topic in your field that you wish you could correct?
People have asked me if an American Studies degree is an English or History degree. I respond, “It’s complicated.” The field of American Studies came about in the 1950s, when the US was emerging as a world power in history and English scholarship. The orientation of American academic thinking around questions of whether the US has its own distinct and genuine culture led to the founding of the American Studies Association.

Who are your favorite writers?
It’s hard to choose just a few… Paulo Coelho, Lila Abu-Lughod, Reza Aslan, Edward Said, J.K. Rowling, and Rainer Maria Rilke.

Who is your hero of fiction?
I enjoy comics and have a soft spot for the complex and powerful Iron Man.

Who are your heroes in real life?
My parents. They immigrated here from Baghdad and Tehran, respectively, and created a wonderful life for me and my sister.

Who in your field do you consider to be a role model?
I most recently read some work by Dr. Roderick Ferguson, who coined the term “queer of color critique,” and have been interested in how race and sexuality intersect.

If you were to die and come back as a person or a thing, what would it be?
Michelle Obama.

What music have you been listening to lately?
Travis Scott, Florence and the Machine, and Incubus.

What is your favorite blog or website?
Busboys and Poets: a company that my dad founded.

Where is your favorite place to eat on/around campus?
Nous Espresso Bar in Philosophy Hall is the best!