Ivy Day Student Speech – Syeda Zainab Aqdas Rizvi ’18

Ivy Day Student Speech – Syeda Zainab Aqdas Rizvi ’18

November 6, 2019 0 By Stanley Isaacs


(applauding) – Thank you President McCartney. I am honored to be
standing in front of you and telling you about my Smith journey. My name is Zainab Aqdas Rizvi, and I am a proud member
of the class of 2018. (audience applauding and cheering) In the audience are my
parents, Mama and Baba, and my two younger brothers,
Muhammad and Ali. (laughs) (audience applauding and cheering) And they’re visiting
Smith for the first time from Karachi, Pakistan. (audience applauding and cheering) I am the first person in my
family to go to college abroad and I would not be standing here today without their unwavering support, throughout these four years. (audience applauding and cheering) I had never visited the United States before applying to colleges,
so reputation and word of mouth played a major role in
deciding where to apply. At my high school’s career fair, I spoke with Sharmeen
Obaid-Chinoy, class of 2002, also here today, and she
encouraged me to consider Smith when I expressed an interest
in storytelling and journalism. She told me about Smith’s
curriculum that encourages taking classes in a variety
of different disciplines. Soon after, I decided
to apply Early Decision. Little did I know that
I would fully explore so many diverse options in the curriculum, and go from English to double majoring in computer science and
statistical and data sciences. (audience applauding and cheering) I still remember the moment I
received my acceptance letter. It was in the middle of
the night in Karachi, and I had not slept a wink in
anticipation of the decision. I logged into the admissions portal and then ran upstairs to
my parents to wake them up and to tell them the good news. The excitement, however,
came with anxiety. I knew I wouldn’t be able to attend Smith without a generous scholarship. I distinctly remember
getting on a phone call with the head of Student Financial
Services, David Belanger, at 3 a.m. in Karachi,
to discuss the specifics of my family’s financial situation. A few weeks later, I
received the second piece of good news, an adjusted
financial aid package that would make it possible
for me and my family to be able to afford a Smith education. (audience applauding and cheering) When I arrived here for my first semester, I had already picked out four
writing-intensive courses to be on track for the English major. My liberal arts adviser said to me, “Zainab, I think you should
try at least one STEM course “to diversify your course load a little.” Too frightened by the hard
sciences and the long labs, I decided to take the Introduction to
Computer Science course. I found it thrilling and
even oddly empowering to write computer programs that would make little
fish bounce on my screen. (audience laughing) Through the support of
tutors, faculty and peers, I was able to overcome
my fear of the sciences, and do well in my first
STEM class at Smith. As part of my work-study
position, I was a peer adviser at the Lazarus Center
for Career Development. Students around me were
getting accepted to internships ranging from start-ups to
world-class research labs, while I still couldn’t decide on a major. But soon, these students
began to inspire me. I began to wonder if I
could apply for one of these amazing and terrifying opportunities. I applied for an internship
at a financial firm in New York City, and when I was accepted for the Technology
Summer Analyst position, I got the confidence to challenge myself and commit to computer
science as my major. During my sophomore year, I was inspired to help
the community do more to address the wide gender gap that currently exists in technology. And so, with the support of my
adviser Professor Nick Howe, I started a Northampton
chapter of Girls Who Code, a national movement to
introduce school girls to computer science. (audience applauding and cheering) I also became a computer
science teaching assistant here on campus, which gave me
the opportunity to interact with other Smithies who were
also considering the major. Last summer, I was ecstatic
when I was selected to intern with Google in
Mountain View, California; (audience applauding and cheering) however, my excitement
was clouded by nervousness about ongoing immigration issues and work visa restrictions
for foreign nationals. I’m grateful for Sidnie Davis
at Google, Class of 2008, (audience cheering)
(laughs) who allayed my fears by
working through my options for staying in the U.S. after graduation. This is just one of the many examples set by the Smith community,
including current students, faculty, staff and alumnae, where they go out of their
way to help each other when unexpected situations arise. I remember walking into the office of Professor Jordan
Crouser, class of 2008, (audience applauding and cheering) one day in my junior year, saying that I had suddenly
realized that I wanted to go to graduate school
for computer science. I knew I was behind schedule
as I didn’t have any research experience but he encouraged
me to maximize the time I had remaining at Smith. He supervised my special
studies where we analyzed bias in the Diagnostic and Statistical
Manual of Mental Disorders and he gave me the individual attention I would not have received
at any other institution. I went on to do an honors thesis with Professor Joseph O’Rourke
in computational geometry my senior year, which has been one of my most fulfilling academic
experiences at Smith. The access to undergraduate research allowed me to work in two very different but interdisciplinary fields. This summer, I will be working
as a research assistant at UPenn before joining full-time as a software engineer at Google. (audience applauding and cheering) My desire to go to graduate school for a PhD in computer
science is stronger than ever and I feel much more prepared for it. All of my amazing experiences have been a collaborative effort through the larger Smith community. The friendships I have formed here are perhaps my biggest take-away
from my four years here. For three out of those four years, I have had the privilege
of knowing Gina Fusco at the Lazarus Center, who I affectionately call my Smith mom. When I was severely ill,
surrounded by nurses, and quarantined at Cooley
Dickinson Hospital, Gina cradled me in her arms
and told me I’d be okay. I met my best friend, Suroor Gandhi, during the 2016 election watching party. From reading Urdu poetry together to cramming the night before
our art history final, to dissecting New York
Times articles endlessly, or just arguing about who makes chai that is just the right color, (audience laughs) Suroor, you have been
an extraordinary friend, and I hope we can be best friends forever. (audience mutters) The support I have received
from Smith has never ceased: from emergency root canals,
thank you Dean Caitlin, (audience applauding and cheering) Woo! To teaching me how to thrive in an increasingly
uncertain political climate, to making graduate school
in computer science a possibility for someone
who was too afraid to take her first STEM course, the opportunities I’ve had here are more than I could have
imagined four years ago. I am even more excited
to be part of a network of remarkable Smithies
long after I graduate. Thank you and congratulations
to the class of 2018. (audience applauding and cheering)