As a child, Nurzahan Rahman dreamed of being her school’s valedictorian. Through her hard work in the classroom, dedication to giving back and willingness to fight for her beliefs, Rahman made that dream a reality, as she was named the University of Detroit Mercy Class of 2021 valedictorian.
“It’s exciting, rewarding and surreal,” Rahman said. “I’ve always wanted to be valedictorian since elementary school. When I got the phone call saying I was the valedictorian, I was living my fifth-grade dream. I’m still in shock in all honesty, but I am thankful and extremely grateful.”
Rahman knew she wanted to go to a small university after attending small middle and high schools in New York. She knew she made the right decision because of all the opportunities she found at Detroit Mercy.
“I came into Detroit Mercy as a shy individual, but I am leaving Detroit Mercy as an outspoken individual, who is not afraid to voice her thoughts and passions,” Rahman said. “I am grateful for such a positive growth.
“There are countless resources within the University to help us grow and flourish into active adults. There are a lot of opportunities, connections and mentor relationships available around every corner. At a small University, you cannot just hide behind a crowd because almost everyone always knows you or of you. You really have to dig deep and find yourself.”
Giving back to the community and living out the Detroit Mercy mission is a huge passion for Rahman, who was involved in a number of groups and initiatives, including Rx for Reading, TRiO Upward Bound, Bridges Not Fences, Student Alumni Leadership Council and the Science, Race, Technology Learning Community.
“Giving back is a big part of my life and philosophy, whether it’s through physical service or a simple prayer,” she said. “Detroit Mercy helped solidify the importance of giving back. Throughout my four years I was in a lot of service-learning classes and often after my course was done, I stuck with the volunteering. I appreciated how important the University made service and service to others, it’s a quality you do not see in other universities.”
Rahman majored in English and Education with a minor in history. She won the English department’s Howard Walsh award and the Fr. Edmund Miller, S.J. Award, which is given for distinguished service to the College of Liberal Arts & Education.
She said she chose English as a major because of the flexibility it allows her careerwise, and because it was a passion of hers.
“Anyone on campus who knows me, knows me as the English girl,” said Rahman, who won a Dudley Randall Poetry award. “I am always talking about the importance of literature and the need for us to be able to connect and understand those around us.
“I was always fascinated by language; English is my third language. I chose English because of the many meaningful skills I picked up — such as linguistics, writing and communication — that have dramatically increased my capacity of understanding the world around me and within me.
“I know I will use the analytical and interpersonal skills as well as the curiosity, empathy and fluidity in understanding multiple perspectives in any conversation and career aspirations of mine.”
Rahman admits she had her share of ups and downs as a freshman, but she was able to get through it because of her English professors.
“They genuinely care about you as a student but also as a person,” Rahman said. “Their doors are always wide open whether you want to talk about the theme of othering in Lois Lowry’s The Giver and Victoria Lee’s Fever King, discuss the confusing excerpt from The Death of the Author that made you question if English was truly the right major, or just word vomit about life and opportunities. There is this warm vibe you get when you go to the second floor of Briggs into the English wing.”
One faculty member Rahman worked closely with was Associate Professor of English Mary-Catherine Harrison. Rahman worked with Harrison both academically and with Rx for Reading.
“Nurzahan epitomizes the spirit of Detroit Mercy,” Harrison said. “She has used her experience as a first-generation college student to support and empower other students. She has advocated for the liberal arts as a powerful force for social change and helped energize anti-racist dialogues on campus.
Rahman enjoyed sharing her passion for English through the Rx for Reading program, which brings literature to low-funded areas of Detroit. Rahman started as a volunteer with the program before becoming a student coordinator.
She had a variety of tasks, including sorting through the donations, but her favorite part was reading to Head Start classes.
“Each time I read to the head start classes I gave the students diverse new books,” Rahman said. “I loved working for Rx for Reading, it combined two of my passions: reading and service. From my work with Rx for Reading I learned how privileged I was even in my struggles. I had access to books, stories and resources. At the same time, I learned the importance of seeing yourself in the stories you read. I had to unlearn a lot of qualities and aspects I thought were important because of the lack of seeing someone like me in the stories I read.”
During her time at Detroit Mercy, Rahman was an orientation leader, Admissions Ambassador, she helped plan the event “Courageous Space: A Conversation on Race for Students and Employees,” and was a presenter at Decolonize the Curriculum: A Student’s Perspective.
“Courageous Space was meant to create a safe space for members of the University to come together and talk about what was happening in our society, the injustices and our emotions. To focus on Black Lives Matter and what we were going through as individuals, community members, students and university members.
“Decolonizing the Curriculum: A Student’s Perspective is about de-centering dominant voices and aligns with my passion for social justice,” Rahman added. “It is important to see yourself and to be represented especially in higher education. Decolonizing the curriculum is giving a voice to the diverse students within the University, but also preparing the majority students, who are Caucasian, for a diverse reality after graduation. It is de-centering from the majority voices to the minority voice, experience, exposure and stories.”
Rahman will speak at Detroit Mercy’s virtual commencement on May 15 and is excited for what the future holds after that.
“For many of my undergraduate peers, we came in as freshmen not knowing much about the University except our majors and a desire for higher education, and yet many of us are leaving Detroit Mercy with a newfound understanding of who we are, what we are and what we stand for,” Rahman said. “At the same time many of us are leaving our undergrad years with a mentality of ‘what’s next,’ because this degree is a steppingstone for us.”