Profile by Robby Griswold
Beenish Ahmed, '09 Creative Writing and Literature in the RC and Political Science in LSA, started "THE ALIGNIST" subscription service in order to bring customers a taste of what her career in international journalism has done for her. The business's tagline is "a quarterly box subscription that will transport you to different corners of the world." Starting a business is never something Beenish expected she'd do. "Both my parents are entrepreneurs and I never wanted to be one because of all the responsibility involved. We barely took vacations as a family, and I watched my parents work incredibly hard... and now I'm doing the same. Hustling after work, before work, on weekends. I never thought I'd be here, but it's where my passions led me so I can't complain."
Work nowadays is based in New York City where Beenish is a Spencer Fellow at Columbia University. Her journalism work in the Fellowship will focus on education and particularly affirmative action, an interest that was first sparked in her when the University of Michigan had to stop using race-conscious admissions because a ballot initiative passed during the fall of her freshman year in the RC.
Looking back at her career path, she acknowledges that her studies in the RC taught her to apply herself and develop her interests. "Honoring your creative spirit will open doors, but only if you really do bow to the muse. I spent a lot of late nights in the library while others spent a lot of late nights...not in the library." She was incredibly moved by how connected RC faculty were with her students, and she looks back with gratitude particularly at the relationships she developed with Laura Thomas, with whom she completed tutorials and an honors thesis, and Laura Kasischke, with whom she took a course on narrative essays. The RC provided her "the nurturing, creatively minded, and socially-conscious space I craved as a young person. I appreciated my LSA classes and the opportunities I got out there, but I think I would have been very lost without the RC as a home base." Her prospects for writing were already looking bright, having garnered $12,500 in Hopwood Awards by the time she graduated.
After U-M, Beenish got a Fulbright Fellowship to the United Kingdom, studying Modern South Asian Studies at the University of Cambridge. She focused on the lives of Indian students who arrived at Oxford and Cambridge to be civil servants and barristers serving the colonial administration, but instead returned home to call for independence as revolutionaries. She then became a Kroc Fellow at the NPR headquarters, one of the most competitive journalism fellowships there is. It gave her a crash course in reporting for public radio that served her well, because thereafter she frequently contributed to Morning Edition, All Things Considered, and the NPR website. Then she moved to Pakistan and reported from there for two years. "I probably didn't have all the skills I needed to report on a country in conflict, but I learned quickly and ended up filing for The Atlantic, Vice, PRI's The World, and NPR." Since then, she has reported from several countries including the U.A.E, Haiti, Kenya, and Malawi, as well as all over the U.S., which leads her to her Spencer Fellowship at Columbia. In early 2018, she secured enough Kickstarter funding to launch THE ALIGNIST, a box subscription service that features a different country each season of the year, through a specially-selected novel, custom-made companion reader, authentic local recipes, artisan ingredients, and fair-trade crafts. "The idea is for subscribers to feel like they're deeply immersed in the country they're reading about with each box. The mission is to foster an empathy-based understanding of the world, one country at a time."
When I asked her for highlights from her considerable resume, she says, "I've reported on elderly people killed after being accused of witchcraft in Kenya, survivors of acid attacks starting over by working a high-end salon in Pakistan, the sanctuary Vodou offers LGBTQ people in Haiti, and an aquaponics farmer hoping to feed desert-dwellers in the U.A.E. A lot of my reporting is dark, but there are so many powerful, resilient, and truly heroic people I've gotten to talk to through it. I like to say that I ask questions for a living. Hearing people's stories is an honor."
In addition to journalism, Beenish has continued making space for the kind of writing she studied in the RC. "I'm writing a novel and have published several essays and poems as well."
Her advice to current RC students is succinct: "If you're a nerd, then don't be talked out of being a nerd." Elaborating, she makes the point that the best way to realize your dreams is to put in the effort. "A lot of people talk about wanting to be a writer, but the only way to do that is to write. A lot. College is where I got serious about my craft. It's served me incredibly well ever since, even though, sure, reading and writing into the wee hours isn't the dream anyone wants to sell you of college, but I would not literally be living my dream now had I not put in the time then."