At 9 years old, Sarah Ahmed and her family moved from their home in the United Arab Emirates to the United States, where the first-generation Pakistani American became the first in her family to enter the country's education system.
In 2012, the family moved from Wicomico County to Howard County, where Ahmed graduated in the top 8 percent of her class at Reservoir High in May 2015. However, the student said she reached a standstill after realizing her dream college, American University, was not financially feasible.
While the stigma of success at a community college didn't bode well with the now-20-year-old North Laurel resident, Ahmed says she found herself through opportunities at Howard Community College, where she received her associate degree on May 25.
"I knew it was cheaper, but at the same time, the impression I had was that community college was more for the dumb kids who didn't get into a four-year university," Ahmed said. "I can honestly say that I was completely wrong."
Her two-year run as part of HCC's James W. Rouse Scholars honors program earned Ahmed a full two-year scholarship to University of Maryland, College Park, beginning this fall. Although she received an associate degree in social sciences, Ahmed says she plans to become a government and politics major, with a concentration in international relations.
During her senior year at Reservoir High, Ahmed recalled getting help with the college application process from school counselors, including financial aid and scholarship options. But with a class of 360 students, there was only so much they could do, she said.
"I felt like I was really going through that process alone," Ahmed said. "Then, it was extremely stressful because I was always getting questions from my parents about, 'How much money do you need? What needs to happen next?' Those were questions that I couldn't answer by myself."
Despite her initial hesitation, the then-incoming freshman applied to HCC and was accepted into the scholars program in fall 2015. The selective program requires students to earn at least a 3.2 GPA and have a combined SAT score of 1650 or better, or an ACT composite score of 25 or better.
An essay and recommendations are also required to participate in the program's honors and advanced placement courses.
"I felt like I had a second chance of doing the whole college process all over again," Ahmed said. "There was always someone telling me about scholarships and helping me find the perfect fit for me. I got that support that I needed to be successful in my college career and beyond."
One of the most notable experiences she had was serving an internship during the 2016 legislative session with state Del. Vanessa Atterbeary, who represents District 13 in Howard County. Ahmed said she assisted in drafting correspondence for the district's constituents, attended committee hearings and receptions and organized information for the scholarship committee.
"I was able to go down to the state house every Friday and see how the legislative process worked," she said. "I was networking with other senators and getting a hands-on feel for that field. I was quite shy coming out of high school and I knew I wanted to do something where I was advocating for people and helping those who didn't have a voice."
In high school, she also served as a page in Annapolis during the 2014 legislative session.
Last June, Ahmed narrowed her career aspirations following a three-week study abroad at the Athlone Institute of Technology in Ireland. As she immersed herself in Irish culture and history, Ahmed said she developed a passion for foreign diplomacy.
The best part: HCC scholarships fully paid for the trip, an "incredible opportunity," Ahmed said.
HCC president Kathleen Hetherington described Ahmed's successful efforts as "impressive," noting that the first-generation Pakistani-American woman was able to defy the community college stigma seen by many up-and-coming high school graduates.
"Like a lot of things in life, you often judge without knowing all the facts," Hetherington said. "I think when students come to HCC, they realize that this is a place where they can get top-notch quality education, small class sizes and a wide variety of programs that will prepare them for transfer or work. They adjust their thinking."
Ahmed served as an excellent commencement speaker at her graduation, the HCC president added, addressing the college's diverse and inclusive nature on- and off-campus.
Ahmed said HCC taught her confidence in her own abilities — intellectually, personally and socially —to help her become a leader in making social change and justice in her community.
"It was more than just going to school and coming home," Ahmed said. "In my high school senior class, the majority of students were either headed to UMBC or College Park. I told myself that I wanted to do something different and grow those next two years and get to know myself and the community. It has been quite a ride."