There were tears of joy in the audience when Taskeen Naz walked across the stage to receive her diploma on Saturday afternoon.
The 24-year-old earned her associate’s degree in paralegal studies from Central New Mexico Community College. But 10 years ago, Naz quit school amid fears for her safety.
Naz and her family are from Rawalpindi, Pakistan. They are Christians, who are a minority group in the Muslim country and often a target of discrimination by citizens and the government alike.
The decision to end her formal education was a tough one to make, she said. The then-14-year-old student loved school and always overachieved in her studies, but she became confined to her home.
“We were troubled. You could feel it in the atmosphere,” she said in an interview. “It was better to stay at home and stay safe.”
She said it was painful to watch her friends continue on with their learning.
“It was really sad because I saw my other friends go through high school,” she said. “They were more knowledgeable because I wasn’t going to school and I was missing out on a lot.”
In recent years, several members of the Naz family – Taskeen is the youngest of six children and the only daughter – have immigrated to the United States. Naz, her parents and two of her brothers live in Albuquerque, while two brothers live in Pakistan and one in Thailand.
Naz moved here with her father in 2010. She was 18, hadn’t been to school in years, and spoke Urdu and Punjabi. But she started working toward a GED while learning English, and then started taking college courses at CNM.
She said she was scared to go back to school, but found a welcoming community there.
“I really liked the atmosphere,” she said. “I can fit in.”
On Saturday, Naz was the student speaker at the graduation ceremony at Tingley Coliseum. She spoke of some of the struggles she faced when she returned to school and encouraged the more than 600 graduates to continue to learn.
She graduated with a 3.6 GPA and has completed an internship at the District Attorney’s Office. She plans to earn a bachelor’s degree from the University of New Mexico and will hopefully go to law school – she wants to practice immigration or international law.
“What I’ve noticed is that she has grown a lot of confidence. She’s very independent,” Khalid Naz, Taskeen’s brother, said of his sister’s accomplishments.
Naz’s parents, brothers, friends and members of her church attended Saturday’s ceremony; a proud moment that will be remembered as a significant step for the entire family.
“It was an emotional time for us. We were minorities, things were not fair,” Khalid said. “Going through what we went through, what she went through, and seeing her today, was a milestone. It was emotional.”