Celebrating #GT21 Graduate Stories: Maria Zulfiqar

In her time at Georgia Tech, Maria Zulfiqar made sure to make each moment count. As a transfer student from Georgia State University with the Arts and Sciences Transfer Pathway, Zulfiqar entered campus determined to make the most of the diversity of research opportunities, clubs, and classes the Institute offers.

Majoring in psychology while pursuing a research option, Zulfiqar knew that her course load would be challenging. However, she did not let that deter her – in fact, she embraced the struggle, and challenged herself to graduate a full two years earlier than initially planned.

“I am the first person in my family’s history to obtain a college degree in the United States, the first woman to ever obtain a college degree at all in my family — and I’m doing it two years early, with highest honors,” she notes. Zulfiqar, who is Pakistani, grew up in Alpharetta, Georgia, and was born in Mississauga, Canada.

Outside of the classroom, Zulfiqar runs a calligraphy business called Maria Calligraphia, and is involved in the Georgia Tech Muslim Student Association (GTMSA). She adds that, after graduation, she will miss “the community — from friends in GTMSA, to those in research with me, to people in my classes.”

Zulfiqar recently joined us virtually for a Q&A on her time as a student and what’s next:

So, how have your initial expectations of Georgia Tech compared to your actual experience?

Coming to Georgia Tech as a transfer student, I expected to not be able to keep up with the minds of everyone else on campus. I remember speaking to a few friends at our FASET — all of us were scared to see if we'd be able to adjust to the rigor here. I thought of challenges as enjoyable at the time, but I was afraid to be ambitious.

However, just being in the Georgia Tech community and attending my first semester of classes made me truly enjoy challenges — and I found myself getting more and more ambitious.

Eventually, I approached my advisor and told her that I wanted to graduate two years earlier than everyone else my age. While I was advised against it at the time, I continued to push forward, through challenge after challenge. If anything, I've learned that I'm more capable than what I initially thought, and that chasing challenges and ambition make environments like Georgia Tech all that more rewarding.

What is the most important thing you've learned at Georgia Tech?

Growing up, I always assumed that knowledge was exemplified by how you did on tests. However, my time at Georgia Tech has taught me that just the journey of obtaining knowledge itself is truly eye opening. Being surrounded by innovative students, detailed researchers, and engaging professors has helped me learn to see that we can gain knowledge from everything and everyone around us — so it's definitely worth it to enjoy the journey.

What is your proudest achievement at Georgia Tech?

My proudest accomplishment by far has to be completing the Research Option here at Tech. Over two years, I have taken special classes, planned a research project, implemented it, and then presented my findings at the Undergraduate Research 2021 Symposium and submitted my thesis.

I've learned a lot about research during this process, and it's helped me grow as a writer and a student. While it was most certainly arduous and stressful at times, I feel like the Research Option gave me a plethora of experiences that have prepared me not only for grad school, but also for entering the world of research myself.

Which professor or class made a big impact on you?

Some of the professors I've enjoyed most at Georgia Tech are Dr. Emily Weigel in the School of Biological Sciences and Dr. Randall Engle in the School of Psychology. I've been able to participate in three different research studies and activities through working with them, and have gained a lot of experience and knowledge I'd like to carry with me after graduation.

Some classes that I've really enjoyed have been Learning & Memory with Dr. Thackery Brown, Neuroethics with Dr. Scott Moffat, Personality Theory with Dr. Keaton Fletcher, and Cognitive Psychology with Dr. Richard Catrambone. All of these classes were not only fascinating content-wise, but also encouraged me to challenge my way of thinking and learn a lot about different aspects of research and the field of psychology as a whole.

What is your most vivid memory at Georgia Tech?

My most vivid memory has to be the day that it was announced campus would be shut down due to the Covid-19 pandemic. It was the same day at the Georgia Tech Muslim Students Association's Culture Fest event, and I recall sitting on the third floor of the old student center with friends as the club prepared for the event. Everyone wore matching shirts, we set everything up outside the Campanile, and there was a lot of great food!

The event itself ended up becoming our last memory at Tech before we all went home for virtual semesters, but it was a great way to celebrate our last day of fully in-person classes, even though we didn't know it at the time.

Where are you headed after graduation?

I'll be attending Augusta University in the fall to get my master's degree in clinical psychology. I aim to one day complete my Ph.D. and then to be both a professor and a clinical researcher. It's also a goal of mine to help amplify South Asian voices, and conduct research about the South Asian diaspora, in particular.

How will you celebrate graduation?

I plan to attend Commencement!