The transformative power of education

Nelofar Rahimi, or Nelly as friends know her, was born in Pakistan, the child of Afghan refugees. When she was just five years old, Nelly and her family immigrated to Canada and settled in Burnaby.

Recalling the sacrifices her parents made to get her and her three younger siblings to Canada, Nelly tears up. “As a child, I never realized how hard they had to work for us to be where we are right now. My father was in medical school in Afghanistan, he went to the University of Kabul and he was going to be a doctor. My mom was a nurse in Pakistan. They left all of that to come to Canada, and currently my dad is a truck driver and my mom is a stay-at-home mom. They sacrificed everything for us to grow up in Canada. My dad, knowing that we had come to Canada, a beautiful country, from a third-world country, valued education as one of the most important things in our lives. He valued it so much, and as a result it became very important to me as well.”

Nelofar’s parents had big dreams for her, and wanted to see her pursue an education

As a young woman, Nelly was interested in science, and completed two years of Biochemistry at Simon Fraser University. After meeting her future husband through mutual friends, Nelly married at the age of 20, a decision that angered her parents, especially her father who she considers to be her best friend. She explains, “As a newborn in Pakistan, I was named to someone. There was to be an arranged marriage when I came of age. My dad had very high aspirations for me, and so he broke with cultural traditions, and cut off the arranged marriage. Instead, he encouraged me to pursue my education. Where I come from, women are degraded. They’re looked down upon, although in some households that’s reality and in others that’s not reality. My family always treated me with respect and taught me that I could do anything I wanted. When I told them I was going to get married, they were extremely disappointed. I shattered their dreams and their hopes, and I was following such a culturally traditional path that they had done everything to help me avoid.”

A month after marrying, Nelly became pregnant with her first child. Just two days after the birth of her daughter, Nelly recalls speaking with a friend about her intense desire to return to school. “I had a two-day-old baby in my arms, and I’m talking to my friend, telling her, ‘Michelle, I need to go back to school. What do I do? How do I begin?’”

nurses studying
Nelofar dreamed of returning to school and finding her purpose

Taking care of her family began to occupy Nelly’s time and school fell to the wayside. In 2013, Nelly became pregnant with her second child and felt her parents had accepted the fact that she was never going to return to school. “I was working as a screening officer at the Vancouver International Airport and it was a well-paying job with great benefits, but I felt so unfulfilled. Going to and from work every day, I didn’t feel accomplished. Every day was the same, and I wasn’t being challenged, I wasn’t helping anyone, I didn’t feel like I was contributing in any kind of meaningful way.”

It was during her daily commute that Nelly was inspired to change her career. “I was taking the skytrain to work on a daily basis, and I would constantly see these posters that Stenberg College was running featuring some of their successful graduates. The theme was how these alumni had changed their lives through education, and the tagline was ‘I Changed Me’. That tagline would just rattle in my head all day at work, and I would think to myself, ‘Will I ever be able to change my life? Will I ever be able to fulfill the dreams my parents have for me?’”

After Nelly’s father suffered a heart attack, the level of care provided by his nursing team inspired her. “Here he is, he’s out of surgery, so I go to see him and I stay overnight. These nurses come and go constantly every hour. They’re looking at him, they’re looking at the IV, they’re seeing how he’s doing, they’re monitoring his pulse, they’re looking at his chest, his ECGs, and how his heart’s doing. I’m thinking, wow. Yes, the surgery saved his life, but the nurses provided the actual care. The doctor was nowhere to be found during those hours, during the night, it was these nurses. Back and forth, back and forth. They’re talking amongst each other. They’re asking me, ‘Do I need anything? Am I comfortable?’ I realized that I wanted to be a nurse. I didn’t know how I was going to do it, but I knew I needed to find a way. I contacted Stenberg and found out that if I took the Practical Nursing program I could be working as a nurse within two years. I enrolled immediately.”

Nelofar with her family. They supported her through the program and she is now a Practical Nurse.
During the program, Nelofar managed to make time for everything and everyone, including her family

Despite the fact that Practical Nursing is one of the most demanding programs offered at Stenberg College, Nelly continued to work full-time during her first three terms. “Between my kids, my job, and school, I barely had time to sleep, but the support of my family, my instructors, and my classmates kept me going. I believe that my class was one of the strongest Practical Nursing classes ever at Stenberg College. I remember during second term, studying for Pharmacology (one of the hardest exams), we all supported and helped each other. Arrangements were made to either come early or stay late just to make sure everybody passed. In our class when one of us fell, there was always somebody to say ‘let me help you study.’”

Nelly’s classmates were quick to praise her efforts to help them succeed in the program, with one stating, “Nelly was one of the students whose star shined bright within the four walls of the classroom. Not only is Nelly a woman who is committed to being the best within her own ability, but she also encouraged others to do the same throughout our time as students. Time and time again, Nelly would agree to meet in order to help me study the concepts that I found hard to understand. She has an incredible way of teaching others in a way that makes sometimes-difficult concepts easy to understand. She is a great encourager and friend.”

Nelly recalls her instructors being her source of encouragement and inspiration throughout the intense program. “The stories that they tell while they’re teaching in the class, it’s motivation. When they were teaching, I remember one instructor, Golriz, had been teaching at Stenberg for two or three years. She was a nurse who worked with the geriatric population and would come and teach our Professional Communications class. Her stories and the way she would talk about nursing, it would bring tears to our eyes because she was crying. While she was teaching she would get emotional. For her to feel like that about a job she loves, I wanted that. It was a source of motivation for me.”

Nelofar on the Nursing Simulation Lab practicing wound care on a High Fidelity Mannequin at Stenberg College.
Nelofar studying to be a Licensed Practical Nurse

Nelly excelled in her courses, earning a 94% GPA and being selected as the Co-Valedictorian for the Spring 2016 graduation ceremony. She was also nominated by six separate instructors for the 2016 Student of the Year award, including Practical Nursing instructor Rebecca Deak, who wrote, “One of the qualities that sets Nelly apart is the fact that all of that extra time she spent on campus was not solely devoted to herself. Nelly spent many hours tutoring peers from other cohorts, along with helping her own cohort, so she could ensure not only her own success, but her whole class’s as well. Nelly always went above and beyond in her studies. A straightforward answer was never enough, she always needed to find out the why’s and the how’s of everything she learned, which was a large contributing factor to her outstanding grade point average.”

Nelly was hired directly off of her final practicum, and is now working as a Licensed Practical Nurse at Abbotsford Regional Hospital, the same hospital where her father was treated after his heart attack. There, Nelly encountered an amazing experience. “It is a moment for me that is priceless. I got to work with the doctor and nurses who saved my dad. I got to say thank you to them and work by their side.  This feeling is the best…I love what I do. Nursing is incredibly rewarding. It gives me the opportunity to make a difference in someone’s life on a daily basis. Every day I touch the lives of different people, and they touch mine. I know that what I do matters.”

Nelly recalls a recent incident where she witnessed a woman faint outside of a shopping mall. “I was kind of shocked, but my friend yelled, ‘She’s a nurse!’ I had to do something. The woman was hypoglycemic so I stayed with her until help came, but just the fact that my presence was able to calm her, and that my Practical Nurse training allowed me to remain calm in that situation was a great feeling.”

Nelofar in grad cap and gown. Through her Practical Nursing program she understood the power of education in transforming lives.
Now a graduate and a Licensed Practical Nurse, Nelofar has changed her life through education

Nelly’s connection to Stenberg’s transit advertising campaigns has also come full circle. She recently served as one of three student representatives in a health care campaign. “Looking back, I was the girl who was envious of the people in Stenberg’s ‘I Changed Me’ campaigns. Now, because of the support I received from my family, teachers and fellow nursing students, I can proudly say that I have changed my life. I get recognized on the street by people who tell me they saw the ad. They ask me how I changed my life, and how they can do the same, and I always tell them that education is the key. In my Valedictorian speech I quoted Aga Khan, who said, ‘You may have nothing in your pocket and only the clothes and shoes you wear, but if you have a well-educated mind, you will be able to seize the opportunities life offers you.’ I truly believe that everyone has the ability to change, you just have to be willing to work for it.”

Nelly plans to continue her education and would like to become a Registered Nurse specializing in emergency and trauma care, although she hopes to eventually return to Afghanistan. “My dream, my hope, and my aspiration is to one day return home and establish a women’s clinic and be a nurse there. I changed me and I want to teach women there that they can have purpose, that they too have power and deserve an education and health care. Growing up, my dad used to tell us one of the teachings of the prophet Mohammed, that if you have two children, one boy and one girl, and you only have enough money to educate one, I advise you to educate the female, not your son. Your son can go out and earn money through labor, but the female will continue to educate the whole family. If she’s educated, if she has an open mind, her children will have an open mind. She can open her husband’s mind. She can open everybody’s mind around her. Growing up, my brothers and my sisters, my cousins, and everybody who came to our house would speak highly of the importance of education. If we are educated, we will have an open mind, and have the ability to be kind towards others who are different. That’s what education gives us the power to do.”

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