ASU interdisciplinary studies graduate Mahnoor Ashraf on steps of Old Main

Interdisciplinary studies fit pre-med graduate’s wide-ranging interests

By

Maureen Roen

Editor's note: This story is part of a series of profiles of notable fall 2021 graduates.

College of Integrative Sciences and Arts graduating senior Mahnoor Ashraf has many intellectual interests. So when it came time to settle on a major at Arizona State University, she was reluctant to be pinned down to one area.

“I wanted to study and attain knowledge in as many different fields as possible and considered college to be that time when I could learn and have new experiences,” said Ashraf, a first-generation college student who grew up in Mesa, Arizona, and received the Obama Scholarship and the New American University – Provost's Award each of the semesters she attended ASU. 

She took her adviser’s recommendation and looked into the Bachelor of Arts in interdisciplinary studies, in which students choose two concentration areas from more than 100 options.

“Choosing this major was one of the best choices I made!” she said. “I completed concentrations in history and biochemistry. I’ve always loved history and wanted to pursue biochemistry to fulfill prerequisites for medical school. Through my biochemistry classes, I was able to study human beings as organisms with cells. However, through history, I understood that these organisms are individuals with feelings and are affected by the course of history. Therefore, my perspective and understanding changed for the better.” 

In the College of Integrative Sciences and Arts, Ashraf also became active as a Student Ambassador, assisting the college’s Recruitment, Outreach and Engagement team in communications and events for prospective, incoming and current students.

A hallmark of the interdisciplinary studies major is a required internship or applied project. Ashraf chose to do an applied research project with Jennifer Chandler in CISA’s faculty of leadership and integrative studies, working on the project “Increasing the Inclusivity in the ASU Organizational Leadership (Project Management) BA Degree Program, Focusing on Students and Project Managers with Disabilities.” 

“I was so grateful to be a part of a project aimed at increasing diversity and inclusion of students and project managers with disabilities,” said Ashraf. “James Baldwin said, ‘Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.’ This project allowed me to use my abilities and voice to increase inclusivity in the project management profession. As a result, I ensured that our society moved toward a better tomorrow for all, even if I played a minor role.”

Indeed, she has a heart that wants to be of service to others. Ashraf will be taking a gap year to apply for medical school.

“My dream has always been to become a trauma surgeon and join Doctors Without Borders,” she said. “Hopefully, that will come true soon. Fingers crossed!”

Julie Lim, CISA's assistant director for student engagment and coordinator of the Student Ambassador program, described Ashraf's capabilities as "limitless" and noted that "Mahnoor is a very positive, sweet individual who strives to give her best. She can tackle any obstacle that comes her way through critical thinking, perseverance and the relationships she forms. She has a large heart that brings comfort to individuals — that will make her a fantastic medical practitioner."

Read more about Ashraf’s ASU journey in the Q&A below:

Question: Why did you choose ASU?

Answer: I chose ASU because it was my parents’ dream. I am a child of immigrants and a first-generation student. My parents always wanted me to attend ASU and attain my bachelor’s degree. It was their dream and hope for me to pursue higher education, which they were unable to do. I am so blessed that I can fulfill their dream today.

Q: What’s something you learned while at ASU — in the classroom or otherwise — that surprised you or changed your perspective?

A: In my African American history class with Dr. Jessica Vinas-Nelson, I learned that I could unapologetically be who I am. I am a woman, Muslim, a person of color and a child of immigrants. However, those aspects of my identity are my strengths and not my weakness. I learned to embrace those parts of myself and changed my perspective about my world and the world around me. Thank you for everything, Dr. Vinas-Nelson! You changed my life!

Q: Is there a particular experience at ASU or part of your journey that stands out for you?

A: A part of my journey at ASU that stands out is performing sustainable chemistry research with Dr. Laura Ackerman. She was the first professor to believe in me and provide me with an opportunity to perform organic chemistry research with her. My love for the field of organic chemistry was established through her love, support and enthusiasm. This experience is one I will always carry with me. It shaped me to become a stronger scientist and individual. Thank you, Dr. Ackerman, for fueling my love of chemistry! You are the best!

Q: Which professor taught you the most important lesson while at ASU, and what was it?

A: Dr. Donald Fixico was the professor who taught me the most important lessons while at ASU. He was one of the first professors I took a class with at ASU in fall 2019. I will never forget the advice he gave me, which will always stay with me. He told me to fake it until I made it, and he was right. So many times, I was faced with imposter syndrome, and I doubted myself and my abilities. However, he always encouraged me to believe that I should be myself and fake it until I make it. I look back, and it was one of the most special lessons I learned.

Q: What’s the best piece of advice you’d give to those still in school?

A: Never say no to yourself. You will experience many doubts and insecurities during your journey. However, still try, even if all seems impossible. Never tell yourself no. Try and always do what you love with the best possible means. You are so much more capable than you give yourself credit for. Everything has its time, and it may not seem OK right now, but trust that it does get better. You got this!

Q: What was your favorite spot on campus, whether for studying, meeting friends, or just thinking about life? 

A: My favorite place to study on the Tempe campus was Noble Library. I was able to pull off many last-minute study sessions and assignments in that library, and it will always hold a special place for me. This spot has seen my frustrations, happiness, insecurity and so much more. I have made so many friends and memories there. It will probably be the place I come back to often if I need to reminisce.

Q: If someone gave you $40 million to solve one problem on our planet, what would you tackle?

A: I would tackle the lack of access to proper health care across the world. The enjoyment of the highest possible standard of health is one of the fundamental rights of every human being regardless of race, religion, beliefs or circumstances. However, currently around 16,000 children die before their fifth birthday. They may die because of pneumonia, malaria, diarrhea and other diseases. Children from regions in Africa, the Middle East, South America and Asia are affected the most by such illnesses as many lack the resources needed for proper health care and treatment. My lifelong goal is to work to reduce inequities in health care worldwide.

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