By the time Sumaira Zammurad received her bachelor's degree from Stony Brook University Tuesday, she'd lived through more than most college students: She'd left her parents and sisters in Pakistan. She'd been married. She'd become a widow.
Surrounded by nearly 2,600 others who were receiving undergrad and graduate degrees at the winter commencement ceremony, Zammurad beamed as president Samuel Stanley told the crowd that the 24-year-old won national awards while researching natural therapies for people who have cancer.
Zammurad "seemed to draw more motivation and strength" from the death of her husband from cancer in her freshman year, Stanley said.
The ceremony was marked by at least a couple of firsts. It was the first graduation overseen by Stanley since he became president in July, and it was the first time Stony Brook graduated a class in its Doctor of Nursing Practice program, which health care workers say will bring prestige and even some better-paying jobs to nurses.
In his speech to graduates and family members in Stony Brook's sports complex, Stanley acknowledged many are trying to enter the job market at a time of high unemployment.
"Whether you like it or not, you're graduating at an extraordinary time for our country and the world," Stanley said. He urged graduates to find opportunities amid changes in the economy and the health care and energy industries.
Stony Brook's student population, which includes immigrants and others from a variety of ethnic and racial backgrounds, means "each of you has a powerful leg up as you enter this global economy," he added.
He singled out Zammurad for her "remarkable story of dedication and perseverance." She was married at age 16 in Islamabad, in a relationship arranged by relatives. Her in-laws insisted that she stay home and be a mother, she said in an interview. "They wanted me to conform to the ideal of a wife," said Zammurad, a Muslim who wears a hijab on her head.
She said her husband, Khurram, supported her college dreams. They moved to New Hyde Park when she was 18, and she later started to study biology at Stony Brook. Soon after, Khurram was diagnosed with an aggressive form of cancer. He died six months later.
Zammurad took time off from her studies to care for her husband. After his death, she returned to her classes.
Her mentor, biochemistry professor Sanford Simon, said Zammurad started as a shy student, almost shell-shocked by the death of her husband. But soon she was winning honors, including a prestigious Howard Hughes Medical Institute summer research fellowship.
"She had the opportunity to branch out from what was a rather protected and sheltered childhood into more activities that Westernized students enjoy," he said in an interview. "She has beautifully integrated her own traditions with this new lifestyle, and is a very popular member of the lab team."
Zammurad plans to stay at Stony Brook to pursue a master's in biochemistry, then devote her career to cancer research. She said she hopes to show fellow students that people of all faiths can work together.
"I was told education is a selfish thing, but I think it's selfless - you're improving yourself, so eventually you can improve society, indirectly and directly."