Fatima Noor, 2014 i3 Scholar

This year’s Alumni Reunion at i3 2016 featured a new recognition for the growing crowd of i3 Scholars: alumni awards. Four alumni awards were created by the Alumni Association Board, including the top honor of Distinguished Alumni. The alumni voted and Fatima Noor, 2014 i3 Scholar, was selected as the winner of the 2016 Distinguished Alumni Award.

Fatima was incredibly humbled when she received the news. “I was surprised. Personally, I feel like i3 had impacted me on such an individual and transformative level. However, there were certainly many other amazing candidates who have spread the i3 love and impact, and upheld the i3 pillars of ‘imagine, immerse, and inspire.’ I definitely didn’t see it coming.” But as you will read, it’s easy to see why the award was so well deserved.

A native of Somalia, Fatima spent her early years in a refugee camp in a neighboring country during the height of a civil war. While still very young, the camp she had come to know as home was ordered to shut down due to overpopulation. Half of its inhabitants returned to a war-torn country, the other half sent to find new homes in other nearby camps. Fatima’s parents, in their efforts to shield her from those two alternatives, made the very difficult decision to send her to live with relatives in Denmark. Fatima’s childhood in Denmark, although thriving, was marked with a nearly 10 year separation from her parents and siblings. This separation came to end a few years ago as Fatima finally reunited with her family in the United States – Memphis, Tennessee – where they made their new home.

Thus began Fatima’s American journey. Fatima was the first in her family to graduate from high school in America and then university. Driven by a deep interest in human behavior, Fatima joined the University of Memphis’ renowned psychology research department. She dedicated her junior and senior years to conducting research in the Emotive Computing Lab on campus, a multi-disciplinary research team of psychologists, computer scientists, and cognitive scientists investigating the impact of emotions on learning through the lens of human-computer interaction.

As Fatima’s senior year neared its end, she knew she was not ready for graduate school. Anticipating the excitement of a potential gap year, Fatima had only applied to two post-graduate opportunities: a summer information science program in Pittsburgh under the name of the iSchool Inclusion Institute (i3), and a 1-2 year teaching program in Madrid, Spain. Two weeks from graduation, however, Fatima got a call from her university leadership about an opportunity to live in D.C. and work for the federal government. Unbeknownst to Fatima, this would end up as an opportunity to serve in President Obama’s White House, alongside a team of dedicated public servants working on our Nation’s most critical national security issues, including immigration and refugee policy.

Fatima, pulling from her personal experiences as a refugee, had developed an academic interest in refugee and migration studies and dedicated part of her high school and college years working with various non-governmental organizations (NGOs). Despite her service to the growing refugee and immigrant communities in Tennessee, she had never thought of working for the government, much less the highest level of our federal government.

The weekend before her graduation, Fatima flew to DC for several vaguely-described meetings and interviews at the White House. She instantly fell in love with the city that she now calls “home” and solidified a job at the Department of Homeland Security along the way.

After graduation, Fatima found herself in Pittsburgh joining a group of twenty-four i3 Scholars for the summer of 2014. Fatima was inspired by the diversity and talent of her cohort. Most importantly, i3 put her out of her comfort zone. “It [i3] exposed me to so much in such a short time that it was impossible not to challenge myself and expand my skill sets.” She credits i3 as a crucial catalyst for her professional development. More importantly, i3 allowed her to make friends, real life-long friends, from all over the country.

Upon completing the Introductory Institute at i3, Fatima moved to DC and initially started working at the Department of Homeland Security and then at The White House. She joined the very agency that that made it possible for her family to reunite and immigrate to the U.S., and for all of them to eventually become U.S. citizens. “For me to work there was my own little personal ‘American Dream.’ It was inspiring to see the faces behind our country’s immigration and refugee process. I wanted to show my appreciation to this country, and I can’t think of a better way to do it than being part of this process and being there for others who want to earn the privilege to celebrate their own ‘American journey.’ For me, there is no more worthy way to demonstrate my commitment to this country that I now call home than through public service, and I am humbled to serve in an Administration that welcomes immigrants and refugees, in an Administration that strives to be as diverse as the country it serves.”

Today, Fatima works at the U.S. Digital Service at the Department of Homeland, supporting the modernization of the immigration system as well as other challenges across the Department’s most critical missions from facilitating international trade to responding to disasters to improving the federal government’s information security practices. The U.S. Digital Service is a startup at The White House that pairs the country’s top information and technology talent with the best public servants, to improve the usefulness and reliability of the country’s most critical digital services in order to better serve the American people.

Fatima credits i3 for helping her pursue the innovative position she holds today, “Had I not done i3 I would have never had the courage to take on this role and the unique challenges that come with it.” She works alongside the best and brightest from Google, Facebook, Twitter and many other prominent tech companies in Silicon Valley and beyond, leveraging their knowledge from the private sector to innovate federal government.

Outside of work, Fatima – a self-proclaimed bookworm – enjoys reading everything she can get her hands on. Finding random, hidden bookstores in DC is one of the past-times she really enjoys. Fitness has also become a new hobby. She is a member, weather permitting, of a local D.C. kickball league which holds its tournaments on the National Mall (though more social than competitive). She also works out at an OrangeTheory fitness gym. The premise of which is in line with Fatima’s newest passion: data. “It’s basically data driven workouts. They strap you with a heart rate monitor to measure your progress, and provide data on your heart-rate percentage levels and capacity, how many calories you are burning during cardio, etc…I love data now!”

Her experience with i3 and the recent Distinguished Alumni award has encouraged Fatima to pursue graduate school after the end of her tenure in federal government. “I’m now considering applying to graduate school for data science or a public policy degree with a data analytics track. I’ve seen how important it is, especially for people in government who want to make data-driven public policy decisions, and the impact that comes with truly understanding data regardless of industry. There’s a huge hunger and demand for data wranglers as our consumption of data explodes. This is ‘the’ field of our digital future.”

She leaves this advice to undergrads:

“Don’t lower your expectations for yourself. Try as many things as you can. When I joined i3 I had internalized barriers that information science wasn’t really for me (despite the fact that I had contributed to an HCI research for more than two years). At the time I was a legal and policy nerd who had determined that anything tech-related “is not for me.” That kind of limiting mindset happens a lot to students where we box ourselves in a corner with near immovable rigidity. I am glad I challenged myself. In my last two years in college, I did things I never saw myself doing: from leading a mock trial team through various tournaments, to presenting original psychology research at a regional conference, to getting involved in community development to serve the most vulnerable immigrants in Memphis, to applying to a seemingly random research program in Pittsburgh that would significantly change the trajectory of my career.

Thus, my best advice to those who look to maximize their undergrad years would be: Don’t create boundaries for yourself. Do as much as you can and then do more. I never thought I’d be a data geek but here I am now. Part of that was largely due to the exposure I got at i3 and the friends I made there who constantly encourage me and help me stay on track. Please expand your horizons and get exposed to as much as you can. There is no greater reward than reflecting back on your undergrad years with amazement on how you accomplished it all!”