Skip To Content

Celebrating Asian American, Native Hawaiian, and Pacific Islander Awareness Month: Q&A with ESL Employee Sumayia Islam

In recognition of Asian American, Native Hawaiian, and Pacific Islander Awareness Month, we sat down with ESL Community Impact Coordinator, Sumayia Islam, to learn more about her reflections on the importance of this month.

May 2024

Can you please share more about your background as far as where you grew up and what it was like growing up?

I was born and brought up in the United States. I have lived in Rochester for most of my life — it’s been about 25 years now! Both of my parents are originally from Bangladesh. My parents taught me and my siblings how to speak Bangla and practiced speaking with us at home. I appreciate this as an adult because that knowledge has given me the ability to communicate and connect with family that I didn’t grow up with, such as my grandparents and extended family members who live in Bangladesh.

There have been many spaces where I’m the only Bengali, the only Muslim, or the only visibly different person whether it’s at school or at work. It’s not always easy to stand out in spaces, especially as a natural introvert. When your identity holds so many different sides and your experience is also multi-faceted, sometimes you can feel as though you fit in everywhere and nowhere at the same time.

You never really know what assumptions people hold about you based on their understanding or experience in the world, and of course, no matter who you may be, it’s not always positive. There are times that I am asked difficult questions about culture, religion, or the world that I don’t necessarily have the experience to answer. However, those moments allow me to learn more about the world and has allowed me to grow in my perspective.

One of the things I love about being different is that my experience has allowed me to broaden my horizon and get to know people beyond the surface. It’s hard for me to judge a book by its cover. I’ve learned over time that despite having such different lived experiences, all humans have so much in common. You can only understand what you don’t know when you make the effort to get to know someone you may consider different! As a naturally curious person, I’ve always wanted to travel the world. Getting to know people from different backgrounds, cultures, and experiences gives me the feeling of having been around the world without ever leaving my backyard, and I think that’s a beautiful experience.

Do you celebrate specific holidays or participate in certain cultural traditions?

I do! In addition to being Bengali and American, I’m also Muslim, so I celebrate cultural and religious holidays. Here’s a breakdown of a couple of major holidays I celebrate:

Sumayia Islam

As a Muslim, I would say that the largest celebrations every year are Ramadan, Eid Ul-Fitr, and Eid Al-Adha. Ramadan is a holy month of fasting, charity and prayer for Muslims. The Eid Ul-Fitr holiday celebrates the end of this holy month. The Eid Ul-Adha holiday is to commemorate the Muslim traditions story of the Prophet Ibrahim (or Abraham) and his sacrifice.

A typical Eid usually starts with wearing your best outfit, attending a morning prayer, visiting friends and family to share a meal, and sharing gifts! My favorite part of Eid is the food and the fashion. There are Muslims from so many different cultures and backgrounds. I love seeing people dressed in their different outfits. It’s a very beautiful and colorful vision!

As an American, Thanksgiving is one of the holidays my family celebrates together, usually with the classic turkey and sides. This is something that my siblings and I brought to our parents and we’re usually the ones who prepare the dinner. As much as I love traditional Bengali food, it’s nice to have mac and cheese, mashed potatoes, and other dishes that we don’t eat regularly as a family.

As a Bengali, the major holiday that I know of is called Pohela Boishakh, also known as Bengali New Year. I don’t know as much about this holiday because I didn’t grow up consistently celebrating it here in the US. However, usually it’s celebrated with families wearing traditional cultural clothing in the colors red, yellow, white, green, etc. and gathering to celebrate. One of my goals is to learn more about Bangladeshi holidays and, hopefully, even experience them in Bangladesh in the future!

What brought you to ESL?

Prior to ESL, I served in Americorps. I chose a program in Rochester because I wanted to learn more about our history and give back to my community. I spent my year of service coordinating a free financial coaching program.

Honestly, I didn’t imagine myself working in a corporate or financial setting, but over my year of service I learned a lot about how personal finance really impacts people’s lives in the past, present, and future. I often investigated local solutions to support individuals and found that the ESL website had great resources for both personal finance and small businesses. Many of the volunteer coaches for the program were wonderful ESL employees!

I was considering moving to a new city, but the pandemic led me to look into local opportunities. I was inspired by how kind and helpful the ESL employees were as coaches and noticed that they all spoke highly of their workplace. When I saw an opening at ESL, I decided to apply!

What’s your favorite thing about ESL?

My favorite thing about ESL has to be the people. I think that there is a wonderful culture because of the employees. Whenever I meet employees who have been with the company for a while, they usually share how their career path started in an introductory role and they slowly moved up into a role aligned with their abilities and experience as they’ve grown. I also appreciate that we’re community-focused not only as a company but also, in many cases, individually as well.

To learn more about ESL and opportunities to join our team, please visit