When Mehak Tahir immigrated from Karachi to Ellicott City with her family three years ago, she had never before stepped foot in the United States.
"When we came in we all dressed differently, we all spoke differently," she said. "There were so many words we didn't understand."
Even so, Tahir started making friends immediately, including with the immigration officer who greeted her and her parents and three younger siblings at the airport.
"I remember the moment I stepped in, he was like, 'Welcome to the land of opportunity,'" said the 23-year-old. "It was something so sweet, because, I think it's a 20-hour flight to get here and we were exhausted. And the plane food sucks and everything else.
"But him saying that was so beautiful," said Tahir, who graduated from Howard Community College in May.
She is headed to University of Maryland-Baltimore County this fall to study biochemistry, molecular biology and psychology, and plans to attend medical school afterward.
Tahir speaks English fluently with an American accent, and has a warm, outgoing personality that seems to put people at ease.
"The immigration officer and me had a conversation for two hours," she said. "First because I like talking and stuff, and secondly, when we first came, we were dressed in a very Pakistani way, with the scarf and everything. He was like, 'I just want you to know that, we're very welcoming, but there might be people here who aren't.'"
Since her arrival, she has continued to make friends, sometimes in unexpected places.
One friend, Milli Burger — Tahir calls her GG, for great grandma — is an American woman in her 80s whom Tahir met while working her full-time job as a manager at Burger King in Ellicott City.
"I think it's a cultural thing; we're very nice to people who are older," Tahir said. "So I would take her food to her, and I start talking, and she starts talking, and now she is my GG. I call her every week, and I go visit her and make sure she's OK."
Burger even attended Tahir's graduation ceremony on May 24 at the University of Maryland-Baltimore County.
Tahir is one of nearly 1,500 students to graduate from Howard Community College this year, making for the school's largest class of graduates.
"She was so excited, she wanted to jump over the seats and come to the very front seat," Tahir said about Burger. "And when I got to the stage, she stood up and she started clapping and waving."
Graduating from Howard Community College was no small feat for Tahir; she juggled a full course load, a full-time job and, for many months, an hour-plus bus ride between her family's apartment in Ellicott City and the college's Columbia campus.
"The thing that I sacrificed most is my sleep," she said.
During one semester, when Tahir had a class in the evening that ran past the bus schedule, one of her teachers drove her home every night so that she wouldn't have to take a cab.
"My teachers were so nice," she said. "They saw I was working hard and looked exhausted and sometimes gave me more time for my work."
Tahir said she "absolutely loves" Howard Community College — she praises its welcoming vibe and diverse student body — but her graduation from the school is bittersweet.
Before she left Pakistan, which has a different education timeline than America's, Tahir was in her second year of university and would have entered medical school the next year. She had to start over when she got to the States, because of the differences between the post-secondary educational system here and in her birthplace.
"All of my friends in Pakistan are graduating med school right now, so that is annoying," she said.
Although Tahir won't enter medical school for at least another two years, until she completes her bachelor's degree, she already has plans to become a cardiac surgeon and work for a philanthropic organization like Doctors Without Borders. She wants to serve others, but also to make enough money to be able to support herself.
"I have put so much thought into this, because it's very hard to get into medical school in Pakistan," she said, "and it is a commitment for life."
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She picked surgery despite the extra schooling it requires, she said, because she likes fixing things and works well with her hands.
"I cut a lot of vegetables in the house," she said. "When I'm really stressed, that's my therapy."
Tahir has always loved human biology, and the heart, especially.
"The 'lubdub' sound that the heart makes — it is music to me," she said.
Her plans makes her parents and especially her mother, who wants to see her settle down and start a family, a bit anxious, Tahir said.
Still, they have been supportive of her as she's balanced work and school, she said, and recognize her determination to accomplish her goals.
"If there's anybody to thank for letting me be me," Tahir said, "it's my parents."