A Graduate's Path from Afghanistan to University of Nebraska-Lincoln; mentor's reflections

by Byron Chaves

August 17, 2023

Editors Note: The following was written by Byron Chaves, assistant professor of food science and technology at Nebraska. 

Lincoln, Neb. —Graduation day is a big day! There is an overwhelming mix of contagious emotions in the audience. For me, three come up to the top: joy, pride, and excitement. I am beyond happy to see my students culminate an important step in their academic careers; I am proud of their accomplishments during their time in my lab; and I am excited for what the future holds for them. Mentoring is one of the best parts of my job as a professor at Nebraska, and I am glad to highlight my experience with Raziya Sadat, a recent graduate from my group who got her Master’s degree in Food Science and Technology from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

Sadat joined my team in August 2021 as a Fulbright scholar. A native of Afghanistan, she came to Nebraska a few days before her country went through significant political and social turmoil, making her first few months very emotionally challenging. Despite these difficult circumstances, she kept her good academic spirits and made it through her first semester successfully. Once she stepped into the lab, she worked closely with one of my former Ph.D. students, and that collaboration quickly resulted in a peer-reviewed publication with Sadat as a co-author. This is exactly the type of ambition that we are looking for in our trainees! Sadat then became more independent, leading her own research efforts, working collaboratively with others, and completing her project successfully. She was professional and technically competent, but more importantly, she became more confident in herself throughout this process, realizing how capable she really is!

We often talk about what we do for students, but I like to reflect on what each of my trainees has done for me besides keeping our research projects alive and advancing the science of food safety. Sadat helped me develop compassion as a mentor and taught me to meet my students where they are. I modified -- not lowered -- my expectation of her given the hard personal circumstances back home. We worked on a timeline so that she would achieve the goals she had set for herself. This is a type of flexibility that we all need as mentors and supervisors.

Sadat came to UNL to advance her education, and she did exactly that. She excelled in her coursework, collaborated with fellow graduates, led her own research project, and even secured a job in her field before graduating. I will be forever impressed with how resilient she became during her time at UNL, managing work and research expectations and creating community in Nebraska while being away from home, where life is not easy for her friends and family. This speaks volumes to her ambition and her commitment to advancing her education.

“Thanks to a caring advisor, kind Nebraskans, and wonderful friends, I found a second home at UNL while losing my home country. This environment allowed me to discover my inner strength and capabilities,” she said. “Graduating from UNL holds immense significance for me, especially considering that I come from a country where girls have historically had limited access to higher education and now face even more restrictive barriers, including being banned from attending high school. I aspire to leverage the academic experiences I’ve gained to empower other girls when I have the opportunity, just as my advisor wholeheartedly empowered me through personal support and academic guidance.”

I am happy to welcome Sadat to the #ChavesLabUNL alumni family, joining students from 10+ nationalities that have gone through my lab and are now representing UNL and spreading the good word of food safety! I am certain she will have a successful, rewarding, and impactful career in the food industry, and I am looking forward to seeing her grow personally and professionally in her new position. Go Big Grad!

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