Fulbright Scholar Aims to Make a Difference

On a cold and windy December night in Chicago, Narmeen Aamir (M.A.S. CPE 2nd Year) arrived at O’Hare International Airport with her husband and their one-year-old son after a 21-hour flight from Karachi, Pakistan. Luckily, a distant relative of Narmeen arrived at the airport to pick them up.

Narmeen received a Fulbright scholarship in 2021, allowing her to pursue a Master of Computer Engineering in Internet of Things at Illinois Institute of Technology, which she will be graduating with in fall 2023. As part of the program, Fulbright applied to four different universities on Narmeen’s behalf, and all four universities offered her admission. But when she looked at each university’s programs, Narmeen found that only one aligned with what she was looking for and would allow her to learn more about the internet of things: Illinois Tech. 

Narmeen soon realized that Illinois Tech, and the many communities within it, captured her personal values as well.

In Pakistan, Narmeen had already received a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering and a master’s degree in electrical power systems from NED University of Engineering and Technology, but was set on continuing her education after completing her thesis on microgrids. Her thesis on microgrids was a turning point for her and her academic path and inspired her to make up her mind and learn more about the cloud and IoT.

“When I was working with microgrids, I realized that these are really interesting things and these are the future,” says Narmeen. “The architecture of microgrids, the software defined networking, and the decision-making mechanisms in microgrids when sensors/grids exchange information made me think like, ‘Man! I need to learn about this.’”

Narmeen’s first semester at Illinois Tech proved to be challenging as she had to balance her academic life and taking care of her son. In a course with Associate Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering Lin Cai, Narmeen couldn’t help but be 15 minutes late to every class because she had to feed her son around that time. 

“She always saw me but said nothing. One day, she asked me if everything was OK since I was always coming into class late, running and panting,” Narmeen says. She explained the situation to Cai, letting her know that it was becoming difficult to balance feeding her son and showing up for each class on time. Instead of being penalized for her tardiness, Narmeen was met with words of encouragement.

“I will never forget what she said to me. She said, ‘It’s a part of life and it’s a part of learning to score less or more sometimes, but this time with your son will never come back. This is a very cute age, and he will grow tall in a blink. Don’t worry if you score less or can’t do stuff because of him sometimes. As long as you are making an effort, you’ll learn, don’t worry.’”

On a separate occasion, Narmeen found that the time for Salah (the ritual prayer that is obligatory for Muslims to perform five times per day) occurred at the same time as one of her courses, causing her to be late for class sometimes. Her professor, Senior Lecturer of Electrical and Computer Engineering Suresh Borkar, took notice of this.

“He didn’t like students coming late to his class, so I apologized after class and told him it was my prayer time and he was like, ‘I’m sorry Ms. Aamir! It’s OK, you can finish your prayers. I won’t mention it again,’” she says. “Every teacher that I have come across [at Illinois Tech] are so encouraging and so considerate with these matters.”

Narmeen holds herself to that same standard as she has dedicated the little spare time she has, outside of her studies and taking care of her family, to campus organizations and helping incoming international students. 

In fall 2022 Narmeen joined the Pakistan Student Association as president and tried to develop plans to help incoming international students navigate their way from the airport to their housing with all of their luggage. As an international student herself, she understood how overwhelming and confusing it could be to arrive in a place you know nothing about.

“When students are coming from the airport, they have a lot of problems commuting with all of their stuff and they don’t know where to go. A lot of them don’t even have a cell phone so that they can easily book Uber. They know nothing about the Blue Line or Red Line ‘L’ systems, and they end up being lost for many hours,” Narmeen explains.

In response to this growing issue, Narmeen, her husband, and a Bangladeshi friend (also an Illinois Tech student) started an initiative called “Project Safe Landing”—where the three of them took it upon themselves to pick up incoming students from the airport and drive them to their respective housing.

“There were four of them that we helped,” she says. “We had students who needed help with getting picked up from the airport fill out forms. They gave us their [flight] times and we picked them up with their luggage and dropped them off at their apartments. In one or two cases, we actually helped them get groceries as well.”

Narmeen aims to take this initiative to a larger scale so that more students can benefit from it.

While working with Pakistan Student Association, Narmeen initiated a campaign called “Hijabis on Campus” that captured the thoughts and feelings of students who wear hijabs on campus. Through this initiative, she not only highlighted Muslim women and their stories about wearing a hijab on campus, but also welcomed the thoughts and perspectives of everyone on campus—regardless of gender and religion, or if they wore a hijab or not.

Narmeen reached out to president of the Muslim Student Association, Hummad Haque (M.S. BME ’23), about the idea, describing how testimonials from students on campus would be a great way to capture their stories. Haque was enthusiastic about the idea and joined Narmeen in the campaign.

“The responses were really good. I asked hijabi women, non-hijabis, non-Muslims, men, women—everybody—how they feel about hijabs,” Narmeen says. “The people who were wearing hijabs, they were like, ‘We feel safe, good, and encouraged. We never feel humiliated or ridiculed on campus.’”

“It’s really nice to live in such a diversified environment where people respect your values and let you be who you are,” Narmeen adds.

While Narmeen was overjoyed with the heartfelt response and outpouring of support that they received from the campaign, she wishes that more Muslim and hijabi women could see the overwhelming support and not be scared to pursue higher education in the United States. Sadly, the instances of harassment and violence toward women wearing hijabs in the U.S. has created a stigma that Muslim women are not safe here.

“That’s the reason women don’t come over here and study,” she says. “They think it’s not safe, so they give up their entire studies because of it.”

Narmeen wants to tackle that stigma and “help women walk freely in whatever field of life they want to.” Her hope is to normalize wearing a hijab in countries such as the U.S. where a lot of Muslims work, live, and study—and to show hijabi women that they can do anything.

“I just want something that can help human beings,” she says. “Even if you can just help one person, which makes his/her life easier. That’s what I want.”

After graduating, Narmeen plans to travel back to Pakistan with her family and hopes to open a research lab based on IoT and their future in grids.

Picture: Narmeen Aamir (M.A.S. CPE 2nd Year)

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