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Journey of an Immigrant – What it Means to Dream and Follow

By May 31, 2024June 3rd, 2024No Comments
Secondary School attended till 7th grade (left) Harvard Medical School (right)

Summary

A young girl’s struggles, challenges moving from Pakistan to United States where she faces cultural shocks and language barriers. Despite those obstacles, she excels at academics, encouraged by her grandfather’s advice and by her mother. With support from various mentors and programs to pursue her dream, she now believes mentoring others is a good way to reflect her journey.

My brother recently shared a picture of the school I attended in Pakistan until the 7th grade. This moment prompted reflective thoughts on the journey that has brought me thus far in life. This journey embodies perseverance, resilience, and hard work. I immigrated to the United States after completing the 10th grade in Pakistan, armed with minimal English language proficiency. As a timid girl, I faced a significant expansion of my world upon stepping into the United States, apprehensive about what lay ahead.

I vividly recall my very first morning conversation with my grandfather in the United States when he asked, “So, what have you dreamed for yourself?” I was confused because no one had ever asked me this question before. I replied that I had never dreamed of becoming anything except a good, obedient child to my parents. He responded, “Well, you are in the country of opportunities. Dream big and make it happen.” At that time, I didn’t take him seriously, nor did I reflect much on what I wanted for myself. However, I believe his words have subconsciously stayed with me ever since.

With the assistance of my mom and aunt, I secured admission for myself and my siblings in a public school. Joining mid-semester with insufficient transferable credits, I entered as a 10th grader. The American public high school culture proved to be a shock—chaotic and overwhelming. Despite the challenging adjustment, I excelled academically. Financial constraints limited my family’s involvement in academic matters, leaving me to navigate changes and college applications independently a year after our move.

In my brief high school tenure, my guidance counselor encouraged me to take the SATs for future college applications. Unfamiliar with the SATs and uncertain about attending a four-year college, let alone selecting a major, I took the SATs and applied to four nearby universities as per my guidance counselor’s advice. Opting for the New Jersey Institute of Technology (NJIT) through the Educational Opportunity Program, I chose Biomedical Engineering (BME) without consulting my parents or high school counselor. Naively, I embarked on an engineering degree, oblivious to the male-dominated nature of the field. It was a huge shock. I will never forget when I first walked into my Chemistry recitation class my first semester, where I was the only girl. I didn’t know where to sit or how I fit into that class. Being very shy, I didn’t reach out to anyone or speak to anyone about my feelings in college. Besides the cultural shock from engineering school, I was quite behind my BME classmates. I started with Pre-Calculus while they tackled Calculus II. To catch up, I undertook additional credits and prerequisites. The demanding nature of engineering made me contemplate quitting during my first year, but as an immigrant, quitting never felt like an option. I felt a profound responsibility to make my parents proud, thus I persevered. I knew I had to keep going because my parents struggled and immigrated to this completely strange country for my better future.

During my sophomore year at NJIT, I was selected for the Ronald E McNair Postbaccalaureate Achievement Program, designed for first-generation college students to promote graduate degree awards for underrepresented students. Joining the McNair program was the pivotal part of my academic career, where I was provided with a community and incredibly amazing mentors who believed in my potential way before I ever did. In fact, they never asked me to apply for graduate school but cultivated the thoughts and ideas in me to want to go to graduate school. The McNair program gave me opportunities to share my research findings at local symposiums and national conferences, including the Louis Stokes Alliance for Minority Participation (LSAMP) conference, which played a big role in my graduate school journey. Presenting my research work boosted my confidence in my work and potential. While I was at one of the conferences, I found this random magazine with a quote written inside: “You don’t get what you deserve; you get what you negotiate.” This quote remains stuck with me, and I knew that I won’t get any success until I work for it and fight for it. It was very early on that I understood the challenges I was facing as an immigrant, First-Gen, and a woman in engineering. I often felt like I was running a marathon, as my peers and I didn’t start from the same starting point. Thus, I am sensitive to the challenges faced by immigrants and women of color in academia, and that has shaped my ongoing commitment to issues of access to higher education.

I graduated from NJIT within four years and decided to pursue graduate school at Florida International University as a Bridge to the Doctorate (BD) Fellow with 2 years of funding. The BD fellowship program is a National Science Foundation LSAMP funded program with a goal to support, recruit, and maintain the retention of minority graduate students studying science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. The BD program provided me with an infrastructure, community, mentors, and a sense of belonging that I needed to succeed in graduate school.

Despite financial constraints, my family, especially my mother, was very supportive of having me attend graduate school. She knew and believed that attending graduate school would be very fruitful for my future and what lay ahead of me. As I embarked on my graduate journey, it came with a lot of new challenges, but the BD program was very resourceful in navigating those difficulties. While in graduate school, I reached out to the Florida Heart Research Foundation for an opportunity to submit a letter of intent to one of their solicitations, which was open to faculty and research scientists with PhDs only. Despite not meeting the eligibility criteria, I still decided to ask. After a short interaction, the Director of the Foundation gave me permission to submit a letter of intent, and later I received positive news to submit a full research proposal. As a graduate student, I received a 2-year funding opportunity from the Florida Heart Research Foundation, which provided me with academic and financial flexibility to make my doctoral work possible. This opportunity had me reflect on the quote I read during undergrad that I may not get what I deserve, but I will get what I can possibly negotiate. If I had not spoken to the Foundation’s director, I wouldn’t have had the opportunity to write a research proposal and get it funded. It even opened doors for other graduate students to write proposals, with the foundation opening up an entirely new mechanism called “Florida Heart Doctoral Student Grant.”

In my journey, I’ve discovered that success is not merely about what one deserves but often about what one is willing to negotiate and work hard for. As I reflect on my experiences, from the challenges of being an immigrant to the triumphs of navigating academia, I am fueled by a desire to pay it forward. Graduating amid a global pandemic and stepping into a postdoctoral research fellowship at Boston Children’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School, I find my purpose not only in research but also in mentorship.

Mentoring has been integral to my academic trajectory, and the unwavering support of incredible mentors has shaped who I am today. Their encouragement, reminders of my strengths, and pushes to become a better version of myself have inspired me. Now, my goal is to extend this support to others, to be a guiding force for the next generation. I aspire to mentor individuals like the younger version of myself—someone who needs that extra push, encouragement, and belief that pursuing higher education is not only possible but a pathway to unlocking one’s full potential. As I embark on this next phase of my career, I carry with me the lessons learned, the challenges overcome, and the profound conviction that mentorship is a powerful tool for transformation, both academically and personally.

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