Tahir Mohammad has lived through a remarkable range of experiences – from the war-torn chaos of his native Afghanistan to the peaceful and modern environs of Colorado and the CU Anschutz Medical Campus.
About three years ago, at a pivotal juncture of his journey from one end of the spectrum to the other, he drove through a war zone in Afghanistan to reach a GRE-testing site.
Now, as he wraps up his master’s in public health (MPH) from the Colorado School of Public Health (ColoradoSPH), he plans to give back to his homeland, which continues its struggle to rebuild.
“I will contribute to the health sector of Afghanistan what I’ve learned here,” he says. “I’ve seen the big gap between these two health systems – what’s available in a developing country and the model here in the United States – so I can understand how these gaps can be filled.”
Bridging gaps and striving for connections have defined Tahir’s life. Having earned his MD in Afghanistan, Tahir found his career options limited in the early 2000s when war broke out and “all the sectors were destroyed, including the health sector,” he says. He started working for the World Health Organization to educate the public about the benefits of polio immunizations.
He then became a grant officer for the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), an agency that provides humanitarian assistance to developing countries. Tahir managed grants for non-governmental organizations (NGOs) that implemented health systems in rural Afghanistan. Public health became a “natural pathway” for Tahir, as he discovered ways to improve the health of entire populations.
Winning a Fulbright
Wanting to learn more about public health, he applied for one of the prized Fulbright Scholarships available to Afghans. Out of 14,000 applicants, he was among the 75 awardees.
He applied to the ColoradoSPH and immediately impressed admissions reviewers with his unique background and international public health experience. “His letters of reference were glowing as to the potential that he had, and he brought that same enthusiasm to his study here,” says Elaine Morrato, DrPH, associate dean for public health practice and associate professor in Health Systems, Management and Policy.
Morrato says Tahir is an excellent example of the diverse and experienced talent that is drawn to the ColoradoSPH. His interest in the MPH program in Health Systems, Management and Policy illustrates the program’s flexibility in delivering leadership opportunities at local, national and international levels. “Tahir was strategic and used his practicum and capstone to help him pivot to what should be a meaningful next step in his career journey,” Morrato says.
For his practicum last summer, Tahir served as a support to the Regional Desk Officer at the United Nations Fund for Population Activities (UNFPA) in New York. He remains on the UNFPA payroll as a National Program Officer in Afghanistan, getting two years of special leave to complete his MPH. In the short term, he may seek a promotion within the UNFPA, and in the long term, he plans to be a leader in reforming Afghanistan’s public health system. “With a master’s degree from the Colorado School of Public Health more doors are going to open for me,” he says.
Nations across the globe are lining up financial support to help reconstruct Afghanistan, Tahir says. He wants to help maximize that momentum.
“I can help figure out how the money should be directed for priorities in the public health sector, and in the health education sector, rather than for the demands of the politicians running the country,” he says.
Afghanistan’s health system is currently almost entirely dependent on donations. Tahir says the country needs to prioritize the launch of accredited and revenue-generating systems, such as those used in the United States, to ensure that both the health and education sectors become high-quality and self-reliant.
‘Always felt accepted’
Self-reliance is one of Tahir’s key characteristics, but he acknowledged that adjusting to the United States – especially the very different academic structure – was initially difficult. “For every international student, the first semester is stressful,” he says. “I was greatly helped by Elaine (his academic advisor) and by the people from the Colorado School of Public Health’s international student group. I also found American Muslim students here on campus and got networked with them.”
Tahir has enjoyed the international group’s friendship and support – the club offers regular potlucks, cultural celebrations and day trips – and he’s a founder and leader of the Muslim Medical Society (MMS) at CU Anschutz.
“The Muslim Medical Society linked me with all these diverse disciplines on the campus, and this is a really good thing,” he says. “I’m so glad that the campus has assigned a room for meditation (in Ed2 South), which is not only for Muslims but a place where people of all faiths can relax.”
He says the society, which currently has 75 members, wants to play an active role in helping the campus meet its diversity and community outreach objectives. The MMS also encourages its members to to be active professionals and contributors to the state’s medical sector and the ColoradoSPH.
Tahir says he’s been around the United States – to 17 states so far – and Colorado is by far his favorite. “I’ve always felt accepted here – no matter other people’s color, religion or ethnic group. I never felt sidelined,” he says. “My opinions were always respected and, in the Colorado School of Public Health, I’ve met friends from different corners of the world and I’ve been exposed to many different cultures.”
Besides gratitude, Tahir has a message of encouragement for his health care peers at CU Anschutz. He recommends the Fulbright Scholarship program as a way for his American counterparts to get exposed to other nations.
Much of the rest of the world, he says, is interested in learning from American values and systems. “Students here can serve all over the world – in developing countries, for NGOs – so they shouldn’t only concentrate on (the United States),” Tahir says. “There are people who are in need and our CU Anschutz graduates can help fill those needs.”