Toronto

A York U student just graduated at age 19. Her advice: 'Don't lose sight of what you're trying to achieve'

Three years ago, Syeda Fatima Abbas Rizvi graduated high school early at just 16 — an academic feat she never expected to be able to repeat. But this week, at 19, Rizvi became one of the youngest international students to graduate at York University.

Syeda Fatima Abbas Rizvi, 19, youngest among 9,000 spring graduates

Syeda Fatima Abbas Rizvi became one of York University's youngest graduates this week. (Submitted by Syeda Fatima Rizvi)

Three years ago, Syeda Fatima Abbas Rizvi graduated high school early at just 16 — an academic feat she never expected to be able to repeat.

But this week, at 19, Rizvi became one of the youngest international students to graduate at York University.

She was also the youngest of this spring's more than 9,000 graduates — a pandemic compilation of the classes of 2020, 2021, and 2022.

"I am really excited," said Rizvi, who now holds a bachelor's degree in global politics.

Next year, she begins work on a master's in globalization at McMaster University. Eventually, Rizvi says she hopes to take what she's learned home to Pakistan to help improve people's lives. 

"She dreams big," said her father Abbas Raza.

Raza says he's proud of his daughter's early graduation, but he knows that not everybody is. Indeed, Rizvi said her parents — who split their time between Pakistan and Dubai in the United Arab Emirates — are often questioned about their choice to send her abroad for a post-secondary education.

"For the girls, it's a bit difficult," said Raza, but he wanted all three of his children, not just his two sons, to aim high when it came to their education. 

As a visibly Muslim woman, Rizvi says a Canadian university was an ideal choice for her postsecondary education because of how welcoming the country is to people of different cultures and religions. Her brother, Ali Raza Rizvi Syed, also graduated from York University just days before Rizvi's graduation. (Submitted by York University)

Rizvi says she knew she needed to go abroad because politics is "a really sensitive topic" at home.

"You can't really be critical of a lot of things," she said, "so studying politics, especially abroad, was always really important for me."

York University felt like the right fit, she says, because she liked its diverse and social campus, as well as the left-leaning nature of its politics program.

It hasn't all been easy, Rizvi said. Rather than be isolated alone in Toronto during the pandemic, she flew home to Dubai. But that meant living opposite to her family's schedule, she said. Some classes wrapped up around 3 a.m. local time, leaving her "half asleep during them."

"You've really got to focus on, like, why you're doing this in the first place," Rizvi said, "Don't lose sight of what you're trying to achieve." 

On Thursday, with her parents and two brothers in attendance, Rizvi will attend her graduation ceremony, diploma in hand with the school's highest distinction — one year ahead of schedule.

She's an inspiration, said York University president Rhonda Lenton in a statement.

"She represents York's values and is applying her unique skills and experiences, overcoming unprecedented challenges, and addressing issues in her community," said Lenton. "I am excited to see what she does next." 

Now that she's got her first degree, Rizvi says her mother is primarily concerned with her finding a partner. But Rizvi, who's eyeing a PhD, hopes marriage and academia can coexist. 

"I don't think it has to be mutually exclusive," she said.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Vanessa Balintec is a reporter for CBC Toronto who likes writing stories about labour, equity and community. She previously worked for stations in New Brunswick and Kitchener-Waterloo. You can reach her at vanessa.balintec@cbc.ca and on Twitter at @vanessabalintec.

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