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Against all Odds, Afghan Immigrant Earns MBA

Alex Kasten
By Alex Kasten
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Editor's Note: This profile is part of a series that features the stories of graduates whose outstanding journeys have culminated in a UMGC degree.

Mussarat Arif, who received her Master of Business Administration from University of Maryland Global Campus (UMGC) this spring, is the first woman in her entire extended family to earn a graduate degree. 

The odds were slim to none. 

Arif is from Afghanistan, where women have long been deprived the right to an education. Growing up in the war-torn country, the odds were stacked against her, but she refused to let her circumstances stand as an obstacle. 

From an early age, Arif was passionate about education. “I didn’t really want to work because I always wanted to study,” she said. “But because I was so much older than my siblings, my parents relied on me for money and support.”

When the U.S. invaded Afghanistan after 9/11, girls started going to school—but there were still limitations, particularly with higher education. “Despite legalization of education for girls by the government, women who sought an education were still stigmatized by society,” Arif said. “The most a girl could do was to finish high school and become a housewife.” 

With her family struggling financially, she entered the job market after high school. She found work with an American consulting company working on United States Agency for International Development (USAID) projects. 

“As one of the only women in the entire zone who could speak English, I got the job straight out of high school and without a bachelor’s degree,” she said. But she would not be denied her dream of a college education. During the day, she went to work, while at night she studied at a private school where she was enrolled in a bachelor's degree program.  

As a woman stepping out at night, she faced constant harassment, and her parents feared for her safety. But she persevered and completed her degree. Then in 2016, Arif’s life changed forever. Through her employer, she was recommended for the Special Immigrant Visa program and emigrated to the United States. 

Adjusting to life in her new home was a struggle.

Arif’s sponsoring company offered her a six-month internship in the United States, but after that ended, she felt lost. With no friends and no knowledge of how things work, she was challenged to meet her most basic needs, from surviving financially to navigating public transportation and finding educational opportunities. The stress took its toll, and she was diagnosed with severe depression and endured other lingering health problems. 

But Arif pushed through. She settled into a job at a clothing store, which provided her with some much-needed stability. Slowly, she gained confidence and, little by little, U.S. life became less overwhelming. 

In 2017, she found a job with the consulting and engineering firm Tetra Tech, where she worked her way up from an administrative assistant to a project manager for international development projects in the Middle East. The salary from this job enabled her to complete a bachelor’s degree in business administration from UMGC in 2021. 

Now, with her MBA finally in hand, Arif can take time to think about what she would like to do next.  

“I would like to earn enough money to invest in Afghanistan,” she said. She would like to build schools for girls and train teachers to improve education standards. “In the U.S., every resource is available to students, but in Afghanistan it’s a challenge.” 

Ultimately, Arif hopes to make sure that children in Afghanistan, especially girls, have the support that she did not receive. “I would like to change the mindset of how children in Afghanistan are taught, to become a mentor for teachers and for students,” she said.