My American, Mexican, Muslim Year in Austin, Texas (Yeeeeehaw!)

By Queen Mary English student and Turing Scheme grant recipient, Mariyah Sawati

Am I the same Brit I was when I boarded my flight from London Heathrow, unsure and afraid, waving goodbye to my family, tears streaming down my face, solemnly carrying my Stitch plush in my arms?

Not one bit! Let me elaborate….

This year has been so breathtakingly transformative. I’ve grown and matured in ways I never would have anticipated: from learning how to deal with unfriendly roommates, to navigating airports with ease, to building a new social circle from scratch in a foreign land, to learning American lingo and culture, and acclimatising to a new, freer, happier way of being. More unexpectedly, I overcame a health crisis with the remedy of Traditional Chinese Medicine, and had an incredibly genuine romantic relationship.

Worth the eons of paperwork to get a visa? Oh yes!

My year abroad can be split into four stages… first, joining MDA, the first ever Muslim sorority in America. Second, visiting Tulum, Mexico; one month spent in the glorious beachy sunshine. Third, the most significant and real romantic relationship I’ve ever had. And fourth, my ‘friends and the city’ month, living (again as a singleton) with friends in downtown Austin!

Mu Delta Alpha

My first month or so in America was challenging and lonely. How do I open a bank account? What do ‘spill the tea’ , ‘bet’, ‘queen/king’, and ‘that hits’ mean, and how are these Americans speaking English in a way I can’t, as a native English speaker, for the love of God interpret? How do I make friends when three out of four of my classes are online, (thanks, Covid), everyone on campus is always too busy to chit-chat, and my stone-cold housemates have given me the cold shoulder as soon as I’ve arrived?!

Well, the answer to all of these questions ending up being: rush* for Mu Delta Alpha, the only Muslim sorority in the United States!

*’Rushing’ is the American term for try-outs or interviewing for a ‘bid’ in the sorority. Rush Week usually lasts – ahem- one week. A bid is a contract that may last months, in which higher up sorority members evaluate your worthiness to join the sorority as a permanent, life-long member. Sounds scary (gulp) – but really, only the initial interview is a little nerve-wracking! From there on out, it’s all giggles and fun 🙂

I never expected to join Greek Life when I first arrived here. It was a spontaneous decision…after having searched for societies to join, I found MDA. I met the girls, interviewed, and for some reason I could not fathom at the time, they loved me, and the rest is history. I was in! The friendships I formed with my MDA sisters changed my entire American experience. For the first time in my life, I had a community where I truly felt like I belonged.

MDA celebration

I’m an ethnic minority; a Muslim and Pakistani, who was raised in a majority Christian and white neighbourhood in Essex, in suburban, rolling green British countryside. I love all of my friends back home of different faiths – and they won’t ever be replaced – but there was something about being in a community that shares my core beliefs that was so comforting and heartwarming. I didn’t realise I’d been missing out on that sense of community until I received it. I didn’t have to explain why I don’t drink alcohol. I could pray with my sisters. They reminded me of my moral compass, a higher purpose. And they didn’t judge me when I occasionally did things considered on the ‘no-go’ list (like dating, or eating non-Halal meat, or wearing crop tops!), because faith is a work-in-progress, an individual spiritual journey. We had the most stupid-fun socials and sleepovers, did charity work for various communities, attended talks on female empowerment and career progression (especially as ethnic minorities), and mingled with other societies. MDA is the perfect mix of spiritual and progressive. I’m immensely grateful to have met my sorority sisters…both the ones I know inside out, and the ones I’ve met only a handful of times. Either way, the genuine commitment to love and connection is present in each and every member. And for the first time in my life, I knew that I finally belonged. 🙂

The Bachelorette

I spent the first few months in America testing out my new ‘bachelorette’ status. I had just broken up with my (British) boyfriend of one year; a breakup that had inevitably been coming, but been catalysed by the difficulties of long- distance, amplifying our significant differences in core values. Free as a bird, I went on a number of first dates, (a few really not adhering to stranger danger guidelines, my family and friends would later tell me, shaking their heads over FaceTime). However, I didn’t run into any serial killers, and had a lot of fun meeting new people. Although…. it felt empty. Why wasn’t I meeting anyone I truly felt a genuine connection with? Why wasn’t I in awe, my soul lifted, by these men? Where was love? That remained… until I met R. (R does in fact have a full name-but I will refer to him as R so that he, or I, don’t cringe with embarrassment if we ever read this blog again in 5 years’ time.)


It was just after the New Year. I’d had a particularly bad time emotionally in the winter, and, after an encouraging phone call from my older brother, flew out to spend a week with him and his girlfriend (now wife) in Tulum, Mexico, where they were living. And my oh my…. what a week it was! The sandy, bright beaches… meditating under a shrine of green leafy trees….meeting countless conscious, healing, compassionate people, on a soulful journey of love and bravery and change…the neon-coloured, sparkling club nights spent dancing by the sparkling ocean, the wind in my hair, feeling as high as the stars….I entered Tulum dejected, defensive, heartbroken, and full of self-doubt; I left completely healed, vibrant, exuberant, and in the vibration of love. Even my physical health radically improved, and that healing was due to a multitude of factors; being in nature, being around people on a healing journey, connecting with and being genuinely heard by my brother Abdullah and Faye, and embracing her, for the first time, as a sister. I overcame so many blocks and limiting beliefs on that trip, and I’m immensely grateful.

But the real shift, the parting of the ocean, was when I decided, consciously, that I was going to live for me. That my courage would be louder than my fear. That if I want to do something, I’m going to go ahead and do it – no matter what wounded part of me wants to hide, and no matter what anyone thinks or doesn’t think of me. The moment everything changed was when I was dancing in Tulum, Vagalume, right by the ocean, on the runway by the pool. When I first entered the party and saw two girls having the times of their lives up there, I thought… how could that ever be me? But somewhere in that night, I chose courage – I knew that I didn’t just want to sway, gently- I didn’t want to blend into the background. I had a fire burning within me, and I wanted to express myself; to leap, jump, throw my arms into the air, sway, and flow as gracefully as a kiss on the wind. And, so, I did. I made the snap thought in my head, standing there: I don’t know anybody here…. and I never have to see these people ever again….I’m here for one week…. I can express myself however I want! And so I let myself go WILD 🙂 (In the best way) . LOL. And I had the TIME OF MY LIFE dancing up on the stage, all alone, and soon enough, attracted SO many people, guys and girls alike, to come and dance with me. It was incredible. The women even joined in with my style of graceful, feminine, swaying dance moves. I felt every chain off of me, in that night. It was a moment I’ll never forget. The best three hours of dancing, perhaps, anyone has ever had in their life…

Love in the South

So, back to R. I had just arrived back in Austin after spending the New Year in Tulum, and was still riding the high of my newfound freedom and self-expression. Our first date was at a comedy club- (of course we got called out by the comedians) – and what seemed at first to be an ordinary evening turned into something special, when we sat and talked for hours in his truck, and I realised … he is something different. And I let my heart do the leading. It wasn’t a logical or conscious decision…. just a pull. A meeting of souls. Yin and Yang. Dark and Light. There was a moment- when he was telling me about one of his favourite songs, Don’t Fear The Reaper, by Blue Oyster Cult.  The live performance, funnily enough, included a cowbell as an instrument. (Hey, this is Texas). And he acted out the motion of playing the cowbell, sitting in the dark, in his truck – an endearingly sheepish, yet resolved, expression on his face. And that was the moment I knew – this tough guy, with his black leather jacket and poker face… is something akin to a Kinder surprise egg. Hard on the outside, but soft and gooey on the inside. Surprisingly quirky and unforgettable – (and attractive). And I certainly won’t forget the way his energy changed that night- from guarded and wounded to sweet, lifted, and open….. we had given each other hope. Love had started to blossom.

The next six months would be a romantic whirlwind: full of highs, tender moments, painful separation, anxiety, and heartbreaking glimpses of R’s shadow side. Although we’ve decided to lovingly separate, heal, and work on our individual growth, every moment was meaningful. With his pure love and devotion, he healed me emotionally, in a life changing, life- affirming way. He made me feel loveable, not just at my best, but also at my worst. Not just in my moments of childlike joy, twirling around dancing, singing for him, giggling and jumping up on him for (laborious) piggybacks; but also in moments of no makeup first thing in the morning; moments of stressed, frazzled packing for my flight; moments when I’ve been moody, frustrated, not given him enough time and attention; and moments when I was deeply, deeply sad. His consistent care and presence helped me overcome my insecurities and open my eyes to consciousness….and none of it will be forgotten.

Friends In The City

In the final leg of my year abroad, I moved out of my apartment in Riverside, South Austin, and had my ‘friends and the city’ moment, staying with my good friend Bushra in her beautiful apartment in downtown Austin. It’s a brilliant location, in the heart of the city, and we couldn’t have been happier or gigglier, just loving life! The first two weeks after the breakup were SO soul-paining and heartbreaking, and I’m so grateful I’ve had my friends around to keep me strong in my decision. I couldn’t have recovered this quickly without my support system of friends and family. I ended up taking an incredible road trip to Big Bend National Park with my friends Maryam and Bushra; the most fun trip I’ve ever had with friends! We did an impromptu truck repair on the highway at 10pm, almost got chased down by a coyote, and swam, blissfully relaxed, in the Boquillas Hot Springs. Now, one month post breakup, I honestly feel over the moon. The neighbours we met in my final week ended up becoming like peas in a pod with us…and they all came to see me play at my first ever open mic, singing and playing guitar. It was an incredible moment – being up there in the limelight, with a front row of my friends cheering me on. I left Austin on such a high!

My year of American adventures really was made possible due to Turing funding, granted via Queen Mary University of London, so I’ll end this blog with a huge THANK YOU! I’ll share a piece of advice my sister shared with me before I left, which completely rang true. ‘Expect to have bumps. Not everything will go according to plan, and that’s okay –
that’s part of the plan! You will grow from the challenges, and come out even better and stronger.’

So, finally… if you’re reading this and considering a year abroad, I have two words of advice for you: ‘Do it!’

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