Fatima Nazir speaks at a lectern in graduation attire.
Class of 2023 VCUarts Qatar valedictorian Fatima Nazir delivers her speech at commencement. (Photo courtesy VCUarts) Qatar)

Class of 2023: Once ‘a seed planted in the wrong soil,’ Fatima Nazir blossomed at VCUarts Qatar

Valedictorian overcame the negative reinforcement of her youth and thrived as a nontraditional college student.

Share this story

Growing up in Qatar, Fatima Nazir was considered such a bad student that she wasn’t sure she would get through secondary school, let alone attend college. Yet this month, she graduated as class valedictorian of the Virginia Commonwealth University School of the Arts in Qatar.

Nazir is a visual learner, but before college, her school system’s curriculum was based on memorization — something she was never good at. 

 “You had to literally memorize [everything from] A to Z,” she said. “I’m not good at that. So I had been always degraded by my teachers: ‘You're not listening.’ ‘You can't go further.’”

Rather than helping students like Nazir when they couldn’t grasp something, the teachers would just push them down, she said. “Like, ‘You can't do this.’ ‘You're just going to burn in hell.’ Yeah, this is one of my teachers who said that.”

Now 30, Nazir can laugh about it, but there was nothing funny at the time as she struggled to complete high school. She scraped by to get her diploma and even excelled in multimedia animation. Riding that momentum, she wanted to continue her education, but her family couldn’t afford it. 

Instead, Nazir worked for various media companies as a freelancer, helping support her family, which included three sisters. For six years she honed her graphic design skills while making friends and connections in the industry. When one friend decided to attend VCUarts Qatar, it was easy to stay in touch because the school was one of Nazir’s clients. When her friend graduated and began working full time at VCU, he encouraged her to get her degree as well.

“At first, I was hesitant,” Nazir said, “thinking it was too late for me to go back to academics and that there were too many variables. But after thinking about it for a few weeks, I realized this might be my second chance at life.”

The time was right. After working for six years, Nazir had reached a plateau in her career. “I couldn't go higher because I didn't have the proper qualifications,” she said. “And I got rejected a lot from companies because I look like a kid — I’m barely 5-foot.”

She talked to her parents, thinking they would say no, since her younger sister, Tiaba, was also considering pursuing her degree. But her father was very encouraging. “He said, ‘If you want to, just go for it,’” Nazir said. She promised to take care of the cost of both her and her sister’s education, and she received scholarships to cover her full tuition.

“It was a life-changing experience of me pushing the boundaries to make that happen,” Nazir said. “There were a lot of hurdles … but at the end, it was meant to be. And I got accepted and I was so, so happy and, at the same time, a bit scared. But I was like, whatever happens, I will push through. I came this far.”

Nazir decided she could go even further. During freshman year, one of her professors asked students to write a letter to their future selves, to be read when they graduated.

“I wrote a letter to myself that ‘you better be valedictorian because this is my second chance,’” Nazir said. “And it turns out, long story short, moving forward to four years, I became the valedictorian. … Four years later, I literally did what I could just to make that happen.”

Nazir also credits the encouraging atmosphere at VCU for her success. “It turns out that I was a seed planted in the wrong soil all along, and VCUarts Qatar was the right soil for me to grow,” she said.

Still, her student experience was unique due to her prior industry work, which made it harder to blend in. At times, she felt more like a mentor than a classmate, even developing a workshop for fellow students to help them learn terminology and software language.

With her bachelor's degree in graphic design in hand, Nazir is now assessing her future, which might include pursuing a master’s degree. She has proved that she’s up for a challenge.

“Whether it’s a failed project or a job that didn’t fit, there’s always a chance to try something new,” she said. “What’s important is what you do at this very moment. Take the first step, and the rest will follow.”