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Meghjee garners undergraduate Brittain Award for service and artistic impact
By Susan Carini | Emory Report | May 5, 2020
The undergraduate recipient of Emory’s highest student honor, filmmaker Samah Meghjee has been a creative, consistent voice for improving student mental health and supporting diverse communities.
Raised in Longwood, Florida, by Tanzanian parents who later lived in England, Samah Meghjee and her two sisters, one of whom is an identical twin, have known what it is to face prejudice.
“Just down the road from my hometown is Orlando, which we tend to think of as very international,” says Meghjee, “but at the same time it isn’t. As someone who wore a hijab through high school and was sensitive to others’ unkindness, I was expecting things to continue along the same lines at college. Instead, this community has been accepting and wonderful.”
Meghjee, an Emory College double-major in English and creative writing/media studies, is the undergraduate recipient of this year’s Marion Luther Brittain Award, given annually to a graduating student who has performed “significant, meritorious and devoted service to Emory University with no expectations of recognition or reward.”
Deeply involved in Residence Life and as a tour guide on both campuses, Meghjee would find that students later accepting Emory’s admission offer would cite her influence. She soon was in high demand, giving tours for donors, high-profile alumni and their children, as well as the Board of Trustees.
Starting at Oxford College, Meghjee was a Conduct Board member, public relations chair of the Drama Guild, an Oxford Class Gift Committee member and president of the Indian Cultural Exchange.
After continuing to Emory College, she was engagement chair for Emory Darks Arts, a member of the Emory College Student Advisory Board, design director of Emory Spoke, public relations chair of the Muslim Students Association and a videography intern for the undergraduate admission office.
She contributed to broader communities by working as a video editor for the Shanti Bhavan Children’s Project, a pre-K–12 school in rural Baliganapalli, India. In addition, she was a literary intern at the Alliance Theatre and a tutor for Emory Reads, teaching English to Spanish-speaking students.
A force at Oxford
Meghjee was the 2018 recipient of the Virgil Y. C. Eady Sophomore Service Award, the school’s top student honor, bestowed on someone “who has given outstanding and selfless service to the Oxford College community.” Joseph Moon, Oxford’s dean of campus life, recalls the moment.
“Her classmates erupted in applause when Samah’s name was called,” Moon says. In his view, “Samah was a force. She invested her creativity and intellectual energy in projects and programs that spoke aloud what others needed and wanted to hear.”
A consistent voice for improving student mental health, Meghjee is proud of the work that she and fellow student Erin Oquindo did as creators and co-directors of “Hearing Voices.” This multi-locational performance art gallery of five original pieces was written by Oxford students and included monologues, large group scenes, movement pieces and spoken word.
Meghjee says of the title, “It is such a stigma in mental health to hear voices. Our idea was that, through this production, you would hear other voices and know that you are not alone.” Debuting in her sophomore year, it has become an Oxford tradition, being performed twice each in her junior and senior years.
Though at heart a writer, while at Oxford Meghjee learned filmmaking in classes taught by David Resha, associate professor of film and media studies. Fearless about trying new platforms, Meghjee — with Resha’s tutelage — pursued the independent project “Bedtime Stories for Woke Children,” a podcast that teaches children to navigate difficult topics such as race, gender, class and mental health. Observes Resha, “Samah continually impressed me with her intellectual curiosity and determination. Her creative talents were immediately clear in her clever and often very funny screenplays and short films.”
For Meghjee, projects of this sort satisfy creative impulses that her mother nurtured in her. “We had so much paint in the house and so many sketchbooks. A beautiful garden. I pressed flowers all the time growing up,” she recalls. “Our family was tight on cash, but there was always a little bit to do whatever weird art projects my sisters and I dreamed up.”
Pursuing Dark Arts with a light touch
Quickly finding her footing with film, Meghjee wrote, co-directed and edited “Therapist Speed Dating,” which won a Jury Award, a Silver Tripod Award for Best Story and was one of five films — out of 2,000 —nominated for a Golden Tripod Award for Best Story during Campus Movie Fest 2019. In July 2019, during the Campus Movie Fest Terminus awards, it was one of 25 films selected to stream on Amazon Prime.
Meghjee was engagement chair of Dark Arts, an arts-focused student mental health group. She describes the weekly meetings as “an important outlet for me, because they brought me back to why I got involved with student health — to give people a place they can go every week where they have people who care about them.”
In February of last year, after learning of an HBO competition for diverse writers, Meghjee and her twin Salwa, a senior at University of California at Berkeley, stayed up all night to write a pilot for a TV comedy about “bad Muslims.” “We wanted to show a nuanced view of Muslims, mostly second-generation immigrants who grew up in the West and have all these outside-influencing factors,” she explains. “And we wanted to raise an important question: What do these terms — ‘good’ and ‘bad’ — even mean?”
This project became her honors thesis. A first cut of the film, titled “Bad Muslims,” is 14 minutes long, and she will continue to refine it after leaving Emory. “There are 72 sects of Islam, and we are wildly different,” she says. “That is what I wanted to convey. I also wanted it to be funny. People care about funny things.”
T Cooper, assistant professor of English and creative writing, taught Meghjee in two classes and insists that ”there is scarcely a person, place or thing that isn't made better after intersecting with Samah. I’m eager for the world to know her through the stories she will tell over the course of her lifetime.”
Looking back at her Emory career, Meghjee says she derived the most satisfaction from Residence Life. Michele Hempfling, associate dean of campus life at Oxford, calls Meghjee “a model of generosity.” As a community coordinator on the Atlanta campus, Meghjee was supervising 14 sophomore advisers, but she downplays the effort.
Calling herself a “big extrovert,” she says, “I just enjoy spending time around other human beings.” At the recent Residence Life banquet, she received a Dobbs Society Award, which “recognizes exemplary leaders who leave a profoundly positive impact on the residential community.”
‘An exercise in believing’
Asked about graduating remotely in light of COVID-19, Meghjee describes being grateful to Emory for acting as quickly as it did, although “as a child of immigrants, I am deeply sad that my parents won’t see my walk across the stage at graduation.” Given the custom in her extended family, her relatives would have come from across the country to see her graduate.
Meghjee was chosen as a Bobby Jones Scholar in February, an honor that provides for a year of graduate study at the University of St Andrews in Scotland, but she soon thereafter learned that she had been accepted into the MFA program at Northwestern University, which forced a difficult choice.
Though she had hoped to defer the MFA for a year, that was not possible; moreover, in the course of negotiations, the university doubled her scholarship, leading her to decline the Bobby Jones Scholarship. Keenly aware of Northwestern’s share of Emmy winners, Meghjee eventually would like to write for television in Los Angeles, but, she adds, “I would also like to see where life takes me.”
Calling all that is ahead of her “an exercise in believing in myself,” Meghjee acknowledges, “For a lot of women of color, it is hard to believe that we are the ones special enough to get this career, this life, this education. Every day I reconvince myself that I am allowed to be a TV writer. I might not succeed, but I am allowed to try.”