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Afghanistan Native Realizes Dream to Earn Computer Science Degree

Family, Professors Inspired Alumna to Finish College
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As a child in her native Afghanistan, Cal State Fullerton alumna Marzia Stanekzai always knew she wanted to earn a technical degree.

Stanekzai was encouraged by her late mother to pursue college. But as a female, achieving her dream became unreachable in a country ravaged by foreign invasions, war – and oppressive Taliban rule.

“Going to school in Afghanistan and being a woman, I did not feel safe when the first civil war broke out in my country,” Stanekzai said. “My life was in constant danger because of the war. But I did not give up; I did not want to listen to people telling me I cannot go to school because I’m a woman.”

As a young adult, she briefly attended Kabul University and studied engineering – she was the only woman in the program – but it was short-lived because of the uncertain political climate in her homeland.

“When the civil war broke out and the Afghan government fell, the mujahedeen – the fighters in Afghanistan who battled the Soviet Union – banned all women from going to school,” she said.

After the mujahedeen rose to power in the early 1990s, followed by the Taliban, she fled to Pakistan. In December 1999, Stanekzai received her visa to join her father and sister in Orange County.

Stanekzai worked multiple jobs, including processing loans at a bank and assisting with technical support at an Afghan radio station. She longed to return to college, but her English was limited.

At the urging of her family, she began taking English classes, enrolled in community college, then transferred to Cal State Fullerton and focused her studies in cybersecurity.

“After four years at community college, I still remember when I was accepted to CSUF for computer science. I get chills thinking about it,” Stanekzai said.

While in community college, she failed classes because she didn’t understand English: “I would cry a lot during my college years. I was told I was too old to be in school in my 40s. Every time I would get a D or an F, I would think about the little girl in Afghanistan who couldn’t go to school because she is a woman.”

Marzia Stanekzai at Graduation
Marzia Stanekzai at her 2019 graduation.

Stanekzai dried her tears and kept studying until she made it to the CSUF graduation stage. In 2019, at age 44, Stanekzai earned a bachelor’s degree in computer science.

Returning to college later in life, Stanekzai endured personal struggles, including caring for her ill father and recovering from a divorce.

“At times I doubted my ability to finish one of the hardest degrees and I wanted to give up. But my amazing professors kept believing in me and pushing me to finish – and so did my family, who inspired me,” added Stanekzai, whose niece and nephew graduated from CSUF before her.

“Now that I look back at my journey and where I am at my job, I realized my professors and the classes I took at CSUF helped me to succeed.”

Stanekzai, who became a U.S. citizen in 2009 and now lives in Kansas City, Missouri, is a system software analyst at Northrop Grumman, an aerospace and defense company.

“Since my start at Northrop Grumman two years ago, I have been promoted multiple times — and it is because of the support and education I received at CSUF.”

Debra Cano Ramos