Alumni Spotlight: Sohaila Ismail ’20
We caught up with inspiring squash phenom Sohaili "Soso" Ismail ‘20 just a few weeks shy of her graduation from Milton Academy, and she was happy to reflect on her time at IMS and how it prepared her for high school and her next stop: UPenn
It was wonderful to have you back on campus for our Centennial Weekend festivities this past October. While you were one of the first, we now have several talented squash players join us each year, most of whom come through Community-Based Organizations like Squash Urbano and City Squash. But your route to IMS was altogether different.
Yes! While I was growing up in Egypt, my family was always very serious about squash and academics. But over there it is hard to pursue both seriously, because the two spheres don’t really correspond. For instance, we would wind up having nationals and final exams the same week, which is not ideal or sustainable. So, in order to continue to excel in squash and at school, I needed an environment that would support both. That’s why we started looking into private schools in the US.
You arrived as a ninth grader and, initially, you were focused on Milton Academy?
Yes, I connected with Chris Kane, who was the coach there at the time. But I applied super late, maybe even after the application deadline, because I didn’t really know anything about the process. Anyway, matriculating that year wasn’t feasible, so Coach Kane suggested that I try Indian Mountain, which I had never heard of before. We don’t even have Junior Boarding Schools in Egypt, so I was totally unfamiliar with the concept.
What were your impressions when you arrived on campus?
I remember that all my eyes could see was green. It was just green everywhere. The campus was just super gorgeous. But then the first thing I knew is that we wouldn’t have our electronics for two weeks, and I was like, there’s no way. Not being able to connect with my family during my first time traveling outside of Egypt was incredibly tough.
How did you get through those first two weeks?
My dorm parents. Ms. Bush, Ms. Spaulding, Ms. Harris. At the time, I didn’t really know how it was possible, but they really understood how I was feeling. And they were very comforting and nice, and they were just there for me the entire time.
Our new Athletic Center didn’t exist when you were here. How did you get through a year without easy access to a squash court?
It was definitely the hardest thing ever to not be able to just jump on a squash court whenever I wanted. And the level of competition in Egypt is exceedingly high, so it was also challenge to find competitive matches. But, to give credit where it’s due, Mr. Abendroth, the IMS Athletic Director, was always doing his best to get me on a court, whether it was at Hotchkiss or Salisbury, and to find me opportunity to hit with a talented opponent.
And I’m so thrilled for current and future IMS squash players; the Athletic Center and its four courts are going to ensure that they have an even better experience than I did, when it comes to playing the sport they love. I’ve seen the facility, and it’s gorgeous. Their friends and peers will be able to see what they put so much time and effort into in a way that mine didn’t. It’s so gratifying to be able to share your passions with others in the community.
When you look back, what were the most meaningful aspects of your experience at IMS?
Well, on the academic side, there was the 9th Grade Summit, where we were sorted into groups and chose different constituencies or sides to represent in a negotiation intended to resolve an international controversy. That was really fun. It was a great thing to go through with my classmates.
But overall, I would have to say that the wilderness trip was the most special. It was very early on, like the second week or so. I feel like that was the start of my growth at IMS. We don’t hike much in Egypt, I don’t think we do it at all. And I’d never been outside of Egypt, so three days marching up mountains in the wilderness, you have to keep up with everyone else, carrying your own food, no showers, spending the night in the woods––that was super scary.
Before that trip, I couldn’t imagine myself hiking. I couldn’t imagine getting along with people other than Egyptians. I know Egyptians very well; I know their language, how they talk, their facial expressions, their reactions, their jokes. But, in the US, it was just very different. A different culture, different people, different traditions, different jokes. Everything was different. And then you have trouble climbing up a crag or whatever, and all these relatively unfamiliar faces are there to help you out, and it’s a great way of bonding. So getting along with different people made me aware that life is bigger than what I had known––the world is much bigger than what I had imagined. And so I can take on bigger things than what I’d previously had in mind.