In 1997 Rimi Afroze missed picking up her degree in Bangladesh because her academic success brought misogynist intimidation that forced her to leave the country.
Today, Afroze finally made it on stage at a graduation ceremony as the first recipient of a bachelor of science in health science from Kwantlen Polytechnic University (KPU).
"I think to be able to finally go to the stage and collect my degree is not only a personal triumph," Afroze said afterward. "I think it’s a triumph for many girls and women who still think that they are lesser than men, they are not capable and they don’t have the opportunity. Having myself, coming from such background, accomplished all of this today, I want to tell them that impossible is not a word and it shouldn’t be in your dictionary."
In addition to collecting her degree, Afroze was presented the George C. Wootton student award for her contribution to the university community and academic success. She was also the final student speaker at the spring convocation. Holding back tears, she told graduates and guests that she had grown up with two moms, her biological mom and her mom’s best friend, who had cared for her as an infant when her mom was seriously ill.
Her second mom, who could not attend college, fought against a social context that precluded women from achieving higher education, said Afroze.
"She therefore understood very well that without education, empowerment and success for women was practically impossible and for that reason she was compelled not to let that injustice happen to me," Afroze added. "Her aim was to make me capable to the extent that one day people would recognize women as no less capable than a man."
Her family’s ambition left them socially ostracized. Afroze said the intimidation worsened when she graduated from her university in Bangladesh with honours as the top student in the country.
"My success was soon met by brutality," she said. "As my family was subjected to unbearable harassment by some fanatics who actually were threatened by a woman’s achievement. Emotionally paralyzed by the situation, I decided to leave the country and for that reason I was not able to attend my own graduation ceremony."
Life, she said, wasn’t perfect after moving to Canada. When pregnant and studying at medical school, her daughter was born extremely premature, weighing only 650 grams. Her daughter was so sick she had to undergo four surgeries to repair her intestines and heart artery.
"When she was in the intensive care and fighting for her life I decided to leave medical school, I decided to become a mom and care for her," Afroze said. "Today, I’m very happy to share with you my daughter is a perfectly healthy, beautiful, brilliant 12-year-old who raises money for BC Children’s Hospital every year."
It took Afroze, who now lives in White Rock, about 10 years to get the courage to come back to university.
"I had a lot of doubt on myself, on my capability, which has all been cleared in the past two years and I sincerely owe that to KPU," she said. "Here, I have found wisdom, courage, inspiration and support at every door I knocked and in every person I met. Therefore, I feel myself extremely privileged to be a part of this great institution."
During her time at KPU Afroze gave back, organizing a health and wellness convention, presenting research at international conferences, raising money for Rohingya refugees and being recognized by the United Nations.
"No matter what I do, I will never be able to repay what this university has done for me, especially for making my dream of attending my own graduation today to come true," Afroze told the ceremony, which was streamed online. "To both of my moms, I hope you are watching me, my dad and my family back home: thank you for walking the path of difficulties and challenges when I was young. And thank you for teaching me the greatest lesson of all; that the solid foundations of success are often built on struggles and failures."
Afroze wants to pursue a PhD in epidemiology and would eventually like to work with under privileged women and children around the world to improve their health status.
She was one of more than 1,000 students who walked across stage to collect their credentials at KPU’s spring convocation this week.