Even though Arusha Afzal was only four when her parents moved the family from Pakistan to New York City, school officials enrolled her in kindergarten so that she could start learning English. When she entered sixth grade in New Jersey, she started a three-year accelerated enrichment program that was supposed to cover two grades per year. But when the family moved again the following summer, this time to Iowa, Afzal’s new school enrolled her in seventh grade anyway.
“I did seventh grade for about a week and then they moved me up to eighth grade,” she recalls. “I had to make friends twice, so it was rather interesting.”
Afzal entered her freshman year at Rochester at 16, as the first of five siblings to go to college and the first person in her family to go to college in America. She admittedly started her college search process “really, really late,” but one of her mother’s best friends, a college professor, helped out by compiling an extensive list of potential schools known both for their academic reputations and helpful financial aid packages. Between the list and her own research, Rochester came out on top.
“I pulled up the Web site and saw a picture of the Rush Rhees Library, and something really clicked in my mind,” explains Afzal, who plans to major in psychology. “I thought, ‘This is where I want to be.’”
The school had other perks. It was on the East Coast, where she wanted to return, and in a buzzing community that quiet Iowa had been unable to offer her. Surrounded by history, it had an impressive reputation for research and competitive doctoral programs. Students she chatted with online gave glowing reports. Afzal wrote her admissions essay on the role culture plays in education, a system sorely lacking in her native Pakistan.
Despite that educational system, Afzal’s mother has always been supportive of her oldest daughter’s dreams, which have morphed over the years from wanting to be a detective—“That was kind of unheard of for a Pakstani Muslim girl”—to a forensic psychologist.
These days, Afzal is a member of the Muslim Students Association and expects to run for an office. She hopes to join Amnesty International, and plans to take up fencing.
“I never did visit here and everyone’s always surprised by that,” she says. “But I’m here and I love it so far.”