December 6, 2019Zulhumar Adil [View Image] Photo by Kevin Morley, University Marketing
A simple but powerful goal inspired Zulhumar Adil to leave her home in Urumqi, China, to visit the United States seven years ago, and that same goal kept her in the U.S. to attend college. It’s also going to steer her toward what she does next, following her graduation from Virginia Commonwealth University this month.
Adil wants to challenge herself — whenever possible, the more daunting the better.
“I don’t like to stay comfortable for very long,” she said.
When Adil came to the U.S. to stay with her aunt and cousin in Northern Virginia, she knew very little English and keenly felt the “foreignness” of her surroundings, she said. She missed her parents and her sister, and they missed her. Yet they decided the best step for Adil was to remain in the U.S. and attend college, though they weren’t sure when they would get to see each other again. Adil and her family are Uyghurs, an ethnic group that has faced persecution in China, according to news reports.
During her first year in the U.S., Adil was not yet able to start high school, so she spent most of her time at home working on her English. She found picking up the language difficult. She took free classes, read books and “tried all the ways you try to learn a language.” She was grateful for her aunt and cousin, but otherwise had few chances to interact with others. She remembers that year as being a period of disheartening homesickness that led to her growing increasingly quiet and feeling “inferior.”
“The biggest difficulty was feeling alone and not having much to do,” Adil said. “Once I started high school, time went fast. I was involved, I had schoolwork and friends, and it was different. But before that, I felt really alone and it was dark and scary for a while.”
Adil started high school in the English as a Second Language program. She remained after school for extra work on her classes and visited the library every week to check out books to read. Driven by her impatience, she said, she pushed herself to get ahead. By her third year of high school, she was in AP English.
“It was really challenging and a lot of work, but it was worth it.”
Adil arrived at VCU knowing that she wanted to pursue a career as a health care professional. She also knew she wanted to embrace her independence. She’s worked a number of jobs during her academic career, both off campus (Lyft driver, interpreter for an immigration lawyer, concessions at the Altria Theater) and on campus, serving as a tutor in the Campus Learning Center, a research assistant in a molecular and forensics lab, and a counselor at RAM CAMP, a weeklong on-campus leadership experience for incoming first-year students. The positions, and the skills and responsibilities associated with them, were crucial to her college experience, she said.
Adil said she lacked confidence when she started at VCU, plagued by feelings of uncertainty about herself and her place on a college campus, but she quickly found her footing in an environment that she calls “inclusive and welcoming to everyone.”
“VCU has given me the opportunity to challenge myself and be a leader,” Adil said. “I’m a shy person, but I’ve got a lot of confidence now.”
Adil credits the personal attention and support she has received from faculty and staff for helping with her growth, particularly from Rachel Hill, assistant professor and assistant director of undergraduate advising in the Department of Biology, and Sara Kohout, director of pre-professional health advising.
Hill said Adil is a very level-headed student who is reliably “genuine, kind and engaging.” She said Adil managed to seek out new opportunities as a student without being reckless — to intelligently stretch herself. Adil’s work as a student while living independently as a recent immigrant to the U.S. — facing an assortment of challenges related to that status — was impressive, Hill said.
“She’s very logical about the choices she faces and she approaches everything in a very mature fashion,” Hill said. “She addresses the impact of her decisions. So she would challenge herself and take on something even if it was going to be intense, but she also was always very aware of what she could handle and how she could maintain her performance while being involved in a lot of things.”
Adil is a pre-health sciences major in the College of Humanities and Sciences who hopes to pursue a career as a physician assistant. She currently works as a patient care technician at Henrico Doctors’ Hospital. She hopes to spend her career working directly with patients. She also wants to live in a large city (“maybe in California,” she said), buy a house and raise a family. All in all, she said, she’s “dreaming big.”
Adil said she’s come a long way since that first lonely year in the U.S. Her parents, who once worried about her being “lost” here, understand that Adil is confident and happy and that she has found the opportunities to succeed that she hoped to find when she came to VCU, she said.
“It’s the opposite of when I first got here,” she said. “Before, I didn’t know where this was going to end, like I didn’t know if this was going to work. But now I feel like every step forward, I can see the results. I feel like I can kind of see my future.”
By Tom Gresham
University Public Affairs