By Cathy Rainone
Zujaja Tauqeer, a senior at the Macaulay Honors College at Brooklyn College, pinches herself every day to make certain she is among the 32 U.S. winners of a 2011 Rhodes Scholarship — the world’s most prestigious academic award and its oldest international fellowship.
“It’s unbelievable,” says Tauqeer, the seventh student in CUNY’s history to receive the $100,000 award, which funds academic studies as well as travel and personal expenses. This fall, she’s pursuing a master’s degree in philosophy in the history of medicine at the University of Oxford in England. “You’re wondering all the time, ‘How did I make it into this company?” she says, “These honors seem like something that happens to other people.”
The achievement seems almost surreal to her when she reflects on the changes she’s made with her family over the past 12 years. A native of Lahore, Pakistan, Tauqeer’s parents were doctors who worked in rural areas of Nigeria and Pakistan. The family fled Pakistan in 1998 after her parents’ clinic was vandalized and her father attacked because of their status as Ahmadis, a minority Muslim sect.
“The situation got so dangerous that there were death threats,” says Tauqeer, 21, who was 9 when her parents received religious asylum to come to America. “If you’re a doctor and there are all these vandals and gangsters standing outside the door, no patient is going to come to your clinic.”
The family moved several times, to Texas, to Maryland, finally settling in Staten Island three years ago. Her father, Tauqeer Ahmad, has a family medical practice there and her mother, Ayesha Tauqeer, is a resident at Lutheran Medical Center in Brooklyn.
Tauqeer has completed half of an eight-year program at Brooklyn College and Downstate College of Medicine of the State University of New York that will earn her a bachelor’s degree in history and a medical degree. At Oxford, she plans to concentrate on how political turmoil can adversely affect health care in developing countries.
She attended Brooklyn Technical High School before she was accepted into the Macaulay Honors College, which she says, “was a perfect fit” for her.
“My family wasn’t financially stable and the amount of resources Macaulay offers you is unbelievable,” says Tauqeer.
As part of her internship at the New York City Institute for Basic Research, Tauqeer has done research on the neuroscience of autism and co-authored a study on that topic, which was published in medical journals. She has also written on radicalization in Pakistan, a topic that became part of her proposal for the Rhodes scholarship. She credits professors and scholarship coordinators from Macaulay and Brooklyn College with helping her prepare for the rigorous Rhodes interview.
“They got experts in the field of Islamic studies, history and medicine to come and interview me,” says Tauqeer. “They went all out to help me prepare for this.”
Corey Robin, political science professor at Brooklyn College, knew Zujaja was a perfect candidate for a Rhodes because of how she delved into the writings of Hobbs and Nietzsche in his Modern Political Thought class.
“She has this really big capacity to really dig deep into texts that require a lot of intelligence, but also imagination and doggedness and a refusal to settle for anything but the truth,” says Robin. “It was amazing to me just how insistent Zujaja was about really climbing inside these readings and forcing them to open up their meaning, which is something you don’t find that often.”
Evelyn Guzman, director of the scholarship office at the college, worked with colleagues from Macaulay to set up at least five mock interviews for Tauqeer.
“It’s such a wide range of topics that you can engage in a conversation about [in the Rhodes interview] and you need to feel confident,” says Guzman. “Students often say our interviews are harder than the actual interview and that’s what I want to hear. It makes me feel like we’re doing our job.”
After graduation, Tauqeer hopes to work for a U.S. agency where she can help improve public health and public health infrastructure in developing countries. She says she would like to return to Pakistan one day as a public health official.
“I love my new country and I love my birth country also, so I want to do something that can help both countries,” says Tauqeer. “And I know that Pakistan is a security risk for the U.S., and it’s a security risk to itself, so I’d like to work there to improve social stability through medicine.”