Nafisa Ali on Engineering and Women’s Right to Education and Healthcare

Nafisa Ali is a student pursuing her Master’s in Data Science at the School of Engineering and Applied Science. Prior to coming to Columbia, she studied electronics and communication engineering in India and worked as an advanced data scientist at a leading healthcare consulting firm. She is passionate about women’s right to access education and healthcare. For Women’s History Month, Nafisa spoke to us about how her experiences in India have inspired her to create a change for future generations of girls.

March 27, 2024

"I'm going to achieve a lot more so that people can get motivated and say, 'if she can do it, so can I.'" 

Nafisa Ali

This interview has been edited for clarity and style.

Why are women’s rights in education and health so important to you?

I come from a very humble background in India, and I have witnessed that some women are not so keen about going for higher education. They stop at primary education, and all they think about is getting married and having a family. This typically happens in the rural areas of India, especially when women are not aware that they have lots of skill sets and potential which they can bring into the workforce. I call it “getting brainwashed by society norms.” Not everyone is aware of working women who have stepped outside of their house to create a legacy and made themselves a career-oriented woman. 

Regarding the healthcare system, the condition of the healthcare system in many rural parts of my country is so degraded that the ratio of patients versus doctors is alarming, especially for women. 

Female doctors are generally fewer in numbers, especially in rural areas, which makes it difficult for women of all ages to seek medical attention and discuss female health problems. That dynamic is something that makes a lot of women try to cure themselves with household remedies. 

Just because you are a woman, does not mean you have no rights to education or health care. All women deserve access to education and healthcare. Women should get equal representation in their family and society, and should not be prone to discrimination and gender bias issues. The best way to make them aware of their rights is also to make their family members, especially men of the household, aware of women’s rights and inform them about the positive things of women's empowerment.

student in city

Do you see yourself as an inspiration now to other women and girls? 

I do. I want to achieve many things in my field, so that young girls look up to me and believe in their dreams. There are many girls and even boys from my hometown who admire my journey today. My mom has been my biggest inspiration. The reason I am at Columbia right now is because she wanted me to pursue higher education and she is very supportive. She looked at me on my last day at home and said, “Although I could not make it to Columbia, you made it! I am proud of you. Keep making it big in your life!” 

She always said to me, “Go ahead and pursue your dreams. Don't stop at one achievement. Columbia is your achievement. But what’s next is something that you always have to think about.”

She didn't intend to be an inspiration to anyone. She was just herself. When I told her that she is my inspiration, she said, It's my responsibility to inspire others through my actions. Actions speak louder than words and I wanted to create a difference through my actions.” I'm going to achieve a lot more so that people can get motivated and say, “If she can do it, so can I.”

student and mother

Do you think it's important that women are represented in engineering?

Most girls at a very young age are told that engineering is not a girl thing but rather boys should pursue it as they will excel in it. That is a really hard constraint to break. I made my way to engineering because of my supportive and educated family, and that is the exact reason why education is important: It makes people open-minded and helps to mitigate stereotypes of all sorts. 

If women go into engineering, that can decrease the gender gap. It's super important to have more women in engineering because it brings fresh ideas and helps solve big problems. Plus, it gives girls someone to look up to and learn from, paving the way for awesome careers in science and tech!

You can do literally anything with engineering. I've done electronics engineering, and today, I'm a data scientist. They are two very different fields, but you can choose who you want to be when you are doing engineering. Engineering represents you and molds you to be innovative.

"[Women's History Month] holds a very profound significance for me because it's a constant reminder that women have done something in their field, their determination, and their commitment to breaking barriers."

Nafisa Ali

What does Women’s History Month mean to you? 

It holds a very profound significance for me because it's a constant reminder that women have done something in their field, their determination, and their commitment to breaking barriers. It's always inspiring and great to strive for excellence. Other women right now can take inspiration from it.

It’s also not just about looking back, it's about looking forward and ensuring future generations of women have greater opportunities and freedom and they can make their ancestors proud. It's a celebration of commitment and the indomitable spirit of women everywhere. 

Women’s History Month is also a reminder of the women who have significantly contributed to society but are often overlooked.


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