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MPH Fulbright student from Afghanistan: "I've always felt accepted"

Colorado School of Public Health

Tahir (top center) with other members of the Colorado School of Public Health’s international student group.

Tahir (standing center) with others from the Colorado School of Public Health’s international student group.

Mohammed Tahir has lived through a remarkable range of experiences – from the war-torn chaos of his native Afghanistan to the peaceful and modern environs of Colorado and the CU Anschutz Medical Campus.

About three years ago, at a pivotal juncture of his journey from one end of the spectrum to the other, he drove through a war zone in Afghanistan to reach a GRE-testing site.

Now, as he wraps up his master’s in public health (MPH) from the Colorado School of Public Health (ColoradoSPH), he plans to give back to his homeland, which continues its struggle to rebuild.

Bridging gaps and striving for connections have defined Tahir’s life. Having earned his MD in Afghanistan, Tahir found his career options limited in the early 2000s when war broke out and “all the sectors were destroyed, including the health sector,” he says. He started working for the World Health Organization to educate the public about the benefits of polio immunizations.

He then became a grant officer for the U.S. Agency for International Development, (USAID), an agency that provides humanitarian assistance to developing countries. Tahir managed grants for non-governmental organizations (NGOs) that implemented health systems in rural Afghanistan. Public health became a “natural pathway” for Tahir, as he discovered ways to improve the health of entire populations.

'Fulbright Winner'

Desiring to learn more about public health, Tahir applied for a prized Fulbright Scholarship. Out of 14,000 Afghan applicants, he was among 75 awardees. After applying to ColoradoSPH, he immediately attracted attention by admissions officers due to his unique background and international health experience.

Elaine Morrato, DrPH, associate dean for public health practice and associate professor in Health Systems, Management and Policy, says Tahir is an excellent example of the diverse and experienced talent that is drawn to ColoradoSPH. His interests in the MPH program illustrate the program's flexibility in delivering leadership opportunities at local, national and international levels. "Tahir was strategic and used his practicum and capstone project to help him pivot to what should be a meaningful next step in his career," says Morrato.

For his practicum last summer, Tahir served as a support to the Regional Desk Officer at the United Nations Fund for Population Activities (UNFPA) in New York. For Tahir's immediate future, he may seek promotion within UNFPA (after ending his two year special leave to complete the MPH). Long term, he plans to be a leader in reforming Afghanistan's public health system. "With a master's degree from the Colorado School of Public Health, more doors are going to open for me," Tahir believes.

According to Tahir, nations across the globe are lining up financial support to help reconstruct Afghanistan - and he wants to maximize and direct that momentum, as opposed to politicized demands by the country’s top mandarins.

Afghanistan's health system is currently almost entirely dependent on donations. Tahir believes the country needs to prioritize the launch of accredited and revenue-generating systems, such as those used in the United States, to ensure that both the health and education sectors become high-quality and self-reliant.

'Always felt accepted'

Self-reliance has always been a dominating characteristic of Tahir, yet he acknowledged that adjusting to the United States - in particular, the academic structure - was difficult. "For every international student, the first semester is stressful," he says. "I was greatly helped by Elaine (his academic advisor) and by the people from the Colorado School of Public Health's international student group. I also found American Muslim students here on campus and got networked with them."

Tahir has enjoyed the international group’s friendship and support – the club offers regular potlucks, cultural celebrations and day trips – and he’s a founder and leader of the Muslim Medical Society (MMS) at CU Anschutz.

"The Muslim Medical Society linked me with all these diverse disciplines on the campus, and this is a really good thing... I'm so glad that the campus has assigned a room for meditation, which is not only for Muslims but a place where people of all faiths can relax."

He says the society, which currently has 75 members, wants to play an active role in helping the campus meet its diversity and community outreach objectives. The MMS also encourages its members to to be active professionals and contributors to the state’s medical sector and the ColoradoSPH.

Tahir says he's been around the United States  to 17 states thus far – and Colorado is by far his favorite. “I’ve always felt accepted here – no matter other people’s color, religion or ethnic group. I never felt sidelined,” he says. “My opinions were always respected and, in the Colorado School of Public Health, I’ve met friends from different corners of the world and I’ve been exposed to many different cultures.”

→ Read the full story at CU Anschutz Today ​​

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