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Graduation Spotlight: Aspiring Doctor Inspired to Give Back

Saba Nafees graduates this weekend, but Texas Tech holds a special place in her heart.

Written by Callie Jones

Saba Nafees

Despite graduating in three short years, Saba Nafees leaves a legacy for her time as an Honors College student.

Nafees, who emigrated to the U.S. with her family from Pakistan in 2004, said that Texas Tech University was where she was meant to be.

“My experience here has been nothing short of phenomenal,” she said. “I know that your college education is really what you put into it; that’s the case with anything you put your passions toward. But here at Texas Tech I have had professors who are at the top of their field. Not only has the academic experience been amazing, but everyone here is so friendly and down-to-earth.”

Before coming to Texas Tech, Nafees lived with her family in the Dallas area. She said she chose Texas Tech over the University of Texas and Texas A&M. As an Honors College student, she received a freshman grant that provided her full first-year tuition. Since 2011, she has been involved at many different levels in the Honors College and with the university in general.

As an undergraduate research student in the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) at Texas Tech (part of the Center for the Integration of STEM Education & Research), Nafees pursued research in mathematical biology, which combines her love of medicine and mathematics.

“I am the ultimate nerd,” she said.

Nafees will graduate with a bachelor’s degree in mathematics, and will continue her graduate studies at Texas Tech before applying to medical school. In addition to undergraduate research and coursework, Nafees is involved with Student Government Association and founded the Mathematics Ambassador program, which recruits high school students interested in studying math to Texas Tech.

Sharing Her Story

In February, Nafees spoke at the inaugural TEDxTexasTechUniversity conference. Her presentation, “A romantic country woman,” focused on her experience as a student in Pakistan and the U.S.

Initially approached about the TEDx conference by Cathy Duran, assistant vice provost for student affairs; and Aliza Wong, associate professor in the Department of History, Nafees said she was reluctant about speaking and didn’t think she had a story to tell. Duran and Wong, however, thought differently.

“It has been a privilege getting to know Saba – she is truly an exceptional person, who cares so much for other people and the state of the world,” Duran said. “I have learned so much from her, and I know others have too. She is so smart and hardworking, and always puts the needs of others before thinking of herself. She is an inspiring speaker: demonstrating courage and passion, and encouraging everyone to broaden their perspectives.”

Nafees said the TEDx experience brought her recognition and opportunities that still surprise her months later.

“It seems like maybe I was supposed to do that,” Nafees said. “It was a life changing event. Many people have come up to me or reached out and offered to help with the immigration process. I thought that was really precious.”

Looking back on her time in Pakistan, Nafees said it is sometimes difficult to reconcile her experiences with the current state of the country. She said her education there, which was very intense, stood in stark contrast to the education of many children her age living in poverty and destitution.

“I don’t think that even today I fully realize the extent to which things are going badly in my country and across the globe,” Nafees said. “I thought that coming to America would end all the problems, and I would forget all the poverty-stricken people back home, but thanks to education system here they have helped me open my eyes to what’s going on across the globe.”

Inspired to Change the World

Nafees is driven by a motivation to make things better—both in Pakistan and everywhere she can.

“The way I look at it is that I have the utmost hope that one day things will become better,” she said. “At least I can help by working hard, taking the opportunities that I have been given to me here at Texas Tech and in this country to move forward and do the best I can for America and for Pakistan and even beyond. Hopefully people like me will follow and I can learn from people that are already helping. We can all provide some hope for the future, because it does seem bad right now, actually.”

As part of her experience with HHMI, Nafees will travel to Haiti and Guatamala with Texas Tech alumnus Dr. Gary Fish, who completes medical mission trips to impoverished areas.

Although she has yet to return to Pakistan, Nafees said her goal is to return and give back to her mother country.

“It’s important not to forget your roots and your heritage,” Nafees said. “I think America is a land of immigrants. It’s true that for many a lot of time has passed to the point where they don’t remember or know their countries of heritage. For me, at least, it’s still quite new.”

Saba Nafees

Nafees said the journey through her undergraduate career has been incredible. Like Duran, Honors College Dean Michael San Francisco said Nafees leaves a lasting impression at Texas Tech.

“Saba is a shining example of a gracious, thoughtful, caring and intelligent person,” San Francisco said. “She has a positive attitude that transcends the ordinary. Her ability to face challenges with grace, and work toward solutions, is an inspiration to me.”

Nafees speaks just as highly of her mentors as they do of her.

“Graduating hasn’t quite hit me yet, but I just have such a tremendous amount of gratitude for Texas Tech and for everyone here,” Nafees said. “I don’t know what I would do without the administration, faculty and staff here. Even if their title is ‘president’ or ‘vice-president,’ they are my mentors and they inspire me. Without them I wouldn’t have made it this far.”

Nafees said she would like to create a scholarship fund one day to encourage students like herself to pursue their education at Texas Tech.

“I have survived on scholarship money this entire time,” Nafees said. “It’s thanks to those donors who keep giving back that I can have an education. I want to be like them.”

Nafees will continue to be Texas Tech’s biggest cheerleader as she continues on with her master’s degree. She will begin the medical school admissions process this year, and she hopes to pursue an M.D./Ph.D.

“My thoughts are just gratitude and honor that I’ve had the chance to be here at Texas Tech,” Nafees said. “Texas Tech continues onward its journey to even more success. Now we’re getting toward that goal faster than ever.”

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