Sadaf Wali's goal is to become a doctor and help those in her native Afghanistan.
Growing up in war-torn Afghanistan, Sadaf Wali regularly saw death and destruction. Her quest for an education has taken her from a country where pursuing an education was considered a crime for women to Thomas Nelson Community College; from taking classes that were held in tents where students had to sit on dirt floors to classrooms with ceilings, chairs, desks and the latest technology.
That journey has taken her halfway across the globe, and after she reaches her goal of becoming a doctor, she wants to return to her homeland in an effort to prevent others from going through the experiences that have shaped her young life.
“My passion for medicine is greater than any barrier I can think of that could stop me from pursuing my dreams,” she wrote in a personal statement that was part of her application for the prestigious annual Jack Kent Cooke Undergraduate Transfer scholarship. “I appreciate every hardship that I went through. Not only did those hardships help me grow stronger as a person, but they also made me realize that there is no success without hardship.”
Wali ended up a semifinalist for the scholarship, making it three consecutive years a Thomas Nelson student made it at least that far. Last year, Xiomara Cuno Lavilla, now at Johns Hopkins, also was a semifinalist. In 2018, Rebecca Holmes (University of Colorado in Boulder) became the first Thomas Nelson student to be awarded the scholarship.
“I was hoping to be a finalist,” Wali said in a phone interview. “But it’s still OK.”
Making it as far as the semifinalists is much better than “OK.” This year, there were close to 1,500 applicants representing 311 community colleges in 45 states and the District of Columbia competing for the scholarship, which offers up to $40,000 a year. That list was narrowed to 461 semifinalists in January before 50 winners were announced in late April.
“Being a semifinalist is a really big deal. That’s something you want to put on your resume,” said SaraLynn Goergen, an education support specialist who works with the College’s Trio students, among them Wali.
Goergen, who has known Wali for about 18 months, said she’s a great student. However, what stands out about Wali is her resiliency.
“She’s just really committed to being excellent as a student and as a person,” Goergen said. “That really stands out to me, and that probably came through in her application. … She’s overcome a lot of obstacles.”
Soon after graduating from high school in 2017, she moved with her family to the United States because her father wanted her and her siblings (she’s the second oldest of six children) to have a better education in a safer environment. They ended up in Yorktown, and she enrolled in Thomas Nelson in January 2018. She will graduate in the summer with an associate’s degree in science.
While she learned English before coming to America, it still was an adjustment.
“It’s a lot different when you speak it,” she said. “You realize English is so different. It’s not just about grammar. Speaking is so important so I was struggling at first, but also taking some English classes and then also speaking with people. You get comfortable after a time.”
Of course, there were cultural adjustments, too.
“But by time, it gets better and you really get comfortable,” she said. “Now, I feel like it’s all right for me, and I feel more connected and close to Americans.”
One place she has always seemed comfortable is the classroom. Despite taking many high school classes in challenging conditions, she earned numerous honors and awards. That success has continued at Thomas Nelson, where she's a member of Phi Theta Kappy, National Honor Society and the engineering club.
“She does well in the classes,” said Olufunke Olagunju, her chemistry professor. “When she doesn’t know a particular concept, she will keep emailing or ask questions. She’s not afraid to ask questions in the class. She wants to learn. She soaks up all the information. She will not get something done until she’s sure.”
After graduating from Thomas Nelson, Wali is looking to transfer to a four-year school, and then go to medical school. She has applied to more than a dozen schools, among them Johns Hopkins, the University of Virginia, and the College of William & Mary.
Her passions, goals and dreams grew out of her childhood experiences, some of those quite traumatic and extremely challenging. But she never lost her focus. She said when things were difficult, she would visualize herself in an emergency room helping patients.
Olagunju can see that becoming a reality.
“She knows what she wants to do and is determined to get it done,” she said. “That is what stands out about her.”
She hopes one day to return to Afghanistan, helping residents cope and recover from the seemingly never-ending wars and bloodshed, things she knows all too well.
“Through medicine, I want to serve my community,” she wrote in her scholarship application’s personal statement.
Her belief is it all begins with education, which is why she’s taken on such a journey.
“I wish to use the power of college/higher education to alleviate human suffering across the globe,” she wrote. “I want the world to see broken persons restored and once warring communities eating together in peace.”
She’s willing to travel halfway across the globe and back to do her part in making it happen.