Almost anyone who knows Minal Ahson would agree she’s one of the most outstanding student leaders at the University of Miami—almost anyone, that is, except Minal herself. “I don’t know that I would consider myself that,” says Ahson, 21. “I know some people have asked the impact of my actions. The things I try to do, I do it for the betterment of other people, student organizations, or my school—it’s not for me to take credit.”
Ahson is involved in more than a dozen campus activities including the President’s 100, Omicron Delta Kappa, the American Medical Students Association, and The Miami Hurricane student newspaper. She also has worked as a resident assistant and helped with events including Hurricanes Help the Hometown, Funday, Up ‘Til Dawn, Alternative Spring Break, and Kids ‘N Culture. As a sophomore, Ahson founded VISIONS, an HIV/AIDS awareness and education group affiliated with the national group VISIONS Worldwide. Under Ahson’s leadership, the organization planned local volunteer activities, promoted World AIDS Day, and coordinated training for UM students to become speakers in Miami-Dade public schools.
Following the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Ahson used her position as president of the Islamic Society of UM to mitigate campus relations. “I spoke at multiple vigils and forums about my patriotism and true Islamic beliefs, dispelling the stereotypes of terrorism and the oppression of women in Islam,” she says. Ahson also launched Fast-a-Thon to educate students about the significance of Ramadan. The event won the UM Excellence in Programming in Awareness award in 2003. Ahson still helps to educate the community about her beliefs as the founding coordinator of the South Florida Islamic Speaker’s Bureau.
UM’s Vice President for Student Affairs Pat Whitely calls Ahson “a wonderful human being, very articulate” and credits her for working on diversity issues including bringing Jewish and Muslim students together. “She has a lot of students’ support because of how she can galvanize people.”
As president of the Council of International Student Organizations, a group that represents about 2,000 UM students, Ahson oversees International Student Orientation, coordinates United Nations Day, and implements volunteer events including a canned food drive and a book drive. “Being able to represent diversity on this campus, I think it’s something I’ve been humbled to be a part of,” she says.
While chairing UM’s International Week last spring, Ahson encouraged students to learn about other cultures by breaking away from tradition. For example, in the past, Asian students would organize Asian Day as part of the weeklong event, which featured a different region of the world each day. “We thought it would be really interesting to switch it—make sure the day chair would not be from that group,” says Ahson, adding that the “outsider’s perspective” forced members to take a look at their own cultures and think differently. “It was the first year that organizations got involved in days beyond their own day.”
Christina Florez has served as COISO advisor for two years. “I’ve never met a student like her,” she says of Ahson. “She’s very humble, which is striking, very modest. I see her in something big in 10 years—ambassador, working for UNESCO. This woman won’t be able to sit still just being a doctor. She needs to do more.”
Ahson also represents the needs of international students as a Student Government senator, and she was recently elected student body vice president.
“It was a great turnout—one of the most competitive races in a while, 20 candidates for three positions,” she says. “There were a lot of qualified candidates.”
The win, Ahson says, is a sign that UM students are ready for a change. “Being such a diverse campus, that was odd that this is perhaps the first time a COISO president stepped into a Student Gotudent GAhson says, is a sign that UM students are ready for a change. to arships, grants, and a resident assistant stipend.grvernment role. I represent a voice that’s not often represented. They wanted to make sure their voices were heard.”
Though Ahson’s “extremely non-traditional” ticket faced tough competition, she and her running mates were determined to run a clean campaign. “Out of the 14 candidates for top two positions, only two were women. Me being involved with COISO and groups that haven’t been represented on a ticket—it was a different dimension. It was very gratifying to know that you don’t have to compromise your ethics to win an election.”
According to Keith Fletcher, a residence coordinator at UM: “She has unparalleled maturity—she relates to all people. What stands out about her is she’s absolutely unafraid to make the unpopular decision, to tell people how they need to improve. She’s managed herself in such a way that they respect her.”
A Fort Myers native, Ahson says her strong personal conviction stems from her Muslim faith and the support of her parents, who immigrated to the U.S. from Pakistan. “My parents have taught me about values and what our family stands for. My faith also—we’ve been taught that what we do is to serve our fellow man. It’s to serve other people. It’s not about our accomplishments.”
A junior majoring in microbiology and religious studies, Ahson says her interests in medicine and public health policy—sparked by her parents, who work in health care and insurance—have fueled her aspirations to become an advocate for people in rural areas who don’t get adequate medical attention. “To be able to change these policies and give children even a chance at pursuing their dreams, that to me would be an amazing career,” she says. “I would love to go to third-world countries and provide medical sciences and health care.”
Last summer, Ahson got the chance to travel to Tengeru, Tanzania to tour clinics and study health care issues. “Going to Africa and seeing the condition of the facilities was a life-changing experience,” she says. “I want to be a force in changing that.” As part of the trip, organized through Cross Cultural Solutions, Ahson taught English and math at a secondary school and took care of children at an orphanage. She also met with local government officials and community leaders to learn more about the challenges facing the area.
“We oftentimes take for granted opportunities and material things—living in the U.S., so privileged to so many things,” she says. “Being able to live in the village in Africa, how these things are luxuries—warm water, electricity—how much of a blessing they are. To see the lack of drugs that have been available here, just to be introduced over there. How fortunate we are as Americans—it’s impacted my future goals.” Upon her return from Africa, Ahson shared her research with UM students through the campus newspaper, and she received the Patrick Stewart Human Rights Scholarship from Amnesty International for her efforts.
“She hasn’t confined herself to one area of campus or student life—she’s made herself visible in so many areas,” says Azuree Ashby, coordinator of UM’s Butler Volunteer Services Center. “She got so many people involved with Islam and really tried to get them to understand it. Everything she does, you would get the notion that it’s the only the thing she does. She’s a tremendous Muslim woman—she’s able to embrace her culture with both arms, even when it’s not the easy thing to do.”
In just her second year as a UM student, Ahson was inducted into the Iron Arrow Honor Society, the highest honor attained at the school and a testament to her success and the potential she showed early on in her college career. “I was the most humbled by being selected into Iron Arrow,” says Ahson, who works as a pharmacy technician and relies on scholarships, grants, and a resident assistant stipend to support herself. “The people involved in that were really people I looked up to and respected. Being recognized for that, not to seek any recognition, is just amazing. It’s one of those times I’ll definitely remember for the rest of my life.”
Ahson’s mentor for her senior thesis is Dr. Stephen Sapp, professor and chair of the department of religious studies. “You never ever feel like she’s gaming you—what you see is what you get,” he says. “People want to follow her without even recognizing that they’re following her. They’re moving together toward a goal they see as common.”
While the next chapter of Ahson’s life remains to be written, her humility, integrity, and commitment to service and diversity awareness will undoubtedly be recurring themes. “I’m an open book,” she says. “What I want people to know, they know the true Minal Ahson. I’ve been open about people with what I do—no secrets here. If I can see the opportunity to make a difference, I do it.” —TB
Contact Ahson at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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