Zahra came to UBC from Tanzania as a Karen McKellin International Leader of Tomorrow scholar and graduated with a bachelor’s degree in Global Resource Systems, with a concentration in global health and nutrition.
While she was at UBC, Zahra founded a club for first-generation and low-income (FGLI) students, trained giant African rats to detect Tuberculosis, launched a podcast, worked as a residence and senior residence advisor for 3 years, and was a research assistant on a project with Arthritis Research Canada that helped investigate COVID-19 outcomes in patients with immunosuppression.
Passionate about creating support systems for FGLI students, Zahra organized Canada’s first conference for FGLI students which brought together universities and education ministers to explore how they can support these students at the policy level. Inspired by her work, UBC established a scholarship for FGLI students that recognizes their unique struggles in navigating the higher education system.
Zahra is currently pursuing a master’s degree in epidemiology and clinical research at Stanford School of Medicine as a Knight-Hennessy Scholar.
UBC is full of opportunities to connect and engage, both in and out of the classroom. What opportunities did you seize, and how did they enrich your experiences here?
I was very fortunate to have a supportive community around me which helped me learn about different opportunities and take advantage of them. For example, I connected with professors who graciously allowed me to audit their graduate level course, I stayed in touch with my teaching assistant from a public health class who later became my mentor and we wrote a rapid review on COVID-19 vaccine hesitancy across Africa that was recently published!
Additionally, I challenged myself to use each class project as an opportunity to explore my passion and that helped me connect more with my peers and professors. As a result, I was able to win grant money from my Global Resource Systems (GRS) class to fund a national conference for first-generation and low-income students (FGLI), while my data science courses equipped me to create and maintain visualizations from provincial data on COVID-19 infection and tailor the visualizations to show the risk and outcomes amongst patients with various forms of immunosuppression.
Outside academics, I was deeply passionate about creating structures and support systems within the university to support the retention of FGLI students. Hence, I started by creating a club for the students, directed a podcast called Torchbearers that is found on Spotify, and ran Canada’s first national conference for FGLI students. These engagements allowed me to touch on various challenges faced by FGLI students including food insecurity, financial stress, mental health stigma, and retention within STEM fields.
Beyond my advocacy for FGLI students, I volunteered on a first aid student team, worked as a residence and senior residence advisor for 3 years within Student Housing, as well as worked as a cultural assistant supporting English learners.
Each of these experiences enriched my degree by allowing me to gain a deeper appreciation of the social determinants of health, and understand how interconnected health inequities are to other aspects of life such as food systems, political will, racialization, and access to education.
UBC is a mosaic of people, experiences and locations that come together to make it unlike anywhere else. What are some of your favourite places, communities and experiences to explore at UBC?
One of my favorite communities at UBC were the friends I made while working as a Residence Advisor and Senior Residence Advisor within UBC Housing and Community Services. This position is unique because of the diversity of students it attracts as well as how it’s structured whereby you work and live with your colleagues. I had so much fun growing into my own in such a supportive community where I was able to take something away from the life experiences of each person I came across. It also allowed me to step into a leadership position and learn more about working with diverse personalities in a cohesive manner.
How did your studies in Global Resource Systems at UBC help you achieve your career goals?
I had transferred from the Faculty of Science to the Faculty of Land and Food Systems (LFS) at the start of my second year to specifically access this program because I felt very connected to its core values. I had met with the program coordinator as well as some of the Global Resource Systems students before transferring and they talked about how multidisciplinary the program was and its focus on solving global issues which solidified my choice in the program.
The global health and nutrition focus within my major provided me the flexibility to tailor my degree to my interest which meant I could combine aspects of social epidemiology, data science and an understanding of the global south all in one degree.
Some key experiences that helped me work towards my career in Epidemiology within the program included working with an international NGO called APOPO as part of the regional requirement where I trained giant African rats to detect Tuberculosis (TB) in inactivated samples as a second-line screening for TB in high-burden countries. Additionally, I had the opportunity of attending the Yale global health conference where I connected with lots of students in my field and I was able to explore courses through my program that I never knew existed such as medical anthropology. These experiences allowed me to build my portfolio as an aspiring Epidemiologist and allowed me to find mentors within my area of research who could advise me on how to navigate both job and graduate school applications.
You were a Karen McKellin International Leader of Tomorrow scholar and you recently received the Knight-Hennessy scholarship. How has receiving these awards opened up opportunities for you?
I am very grateful and humbled to have received both these awards and through that, to have had the support of amazing staff members who have supported my journey. The biggest impact of these awards is that they have made higher education possible for me, which wasn’t something I ever visualized in my future as a first-generation and low-income student. If you had asked me while I was in my second year of university whether or not I would pursue graduate school, I would have said I don’t think that is something someone like me could do, given the costs of attendance. Hence, these awards are so impactful in changing the realities of students who come from backgrounds in which higher education is not the traditional pathway to success.
However, specifically the Karen McKellin International Leader of Tomorrow (KM-ILOT) award catapulted me into a world of opportunities which was very formative in terms of my career. I had opportunities to make real-world contributions in public health during the pandemic, from recruiting people to a COVID-19 study to understand the outcomes of this disease in patients taking different forms of immunosuppressive medications, to having difficult conversations with friends and family back home around vaccine hesitancy and sometimes successfully convincing them to get vaccinated!
Being a Knight Hennessy (KH) scholar, I have had the privilege to meet scholars and professors at the forefront of world change, who are passionate about making an impact in their field of study and this continues to inspire me to realize the interconnectedness of public health to all these different fields. I look forward to working more closely with outstanding professors such as Dr. Stephen Luby and Dr. Lorene Nelson while at Stanford as well as taking advantage of the KHeystone project to collaborate with other scholars in solving a real-world challenge.
Ultimately, I would like to think that I am a mosaic of many scholars from both these awards who have and will touch my life by sharing their passion or knowledge and I hope to carry that forward to my own field.
Share a memory or a moment in time when you remember feeling validated that you chose to attend UBC. Could be a favourite event, a successful project in the classroom, or something you did with a club or community organization. What about that memory affirmed your choice to come to UBC?
One of the moments I look back fondly on during my time at UBC that validated my choice to attend UBC is when a new scholarship was instituted to support FGLI students under the KM-ILOT award that recognized the identity of FGLI students as well as their unique struggles in navigating the higher education system. I heard about the news during a workshop held by the KM-ILOT staff members and it came following the national conference that we held as FGLI students across Canada to call upon universities to build policy-level support systems for FGLI students.
During this conference, another moment of validation was the presence of two ministers of education in BC as part of the conference attendees who were open to hearing how the system can better encourage the retention of FGLI students within university as well as specific fields such as STEM in the province. Both of these experiences made me proud to be a UBC student and to have received so much support from the broader university community in advocating for long-lasting change for FGLI students.