Before Moving from Pakistan at Age 10, Muhammad Khan Had Never Been to School. Helped by Mentors Like Jennifer Lowry, the Athens Drive Grad Is Now College-Bound.

  • Muhammad Khan with literacy coach Jennifer Lowry

    June 18, 2019

    Muhammad Khan showed up to Athens Drive Magnet High School four years ago determined to succeed, but still playing catch-up. “I wanted to be the first in my family to go to college,” he says. “I wanted to make the most of [high school]. My mom is a single mom. I just wanted to do something for her. I do everything for my mom, basically.”

    Muhammad and his mother had moved from Pakistan when he was 10. He had had no formal schooling prior to that, and he spoke no English. On top of that, Muhammad was still grieving the unexpected loss of his father, who died about a year before the family was to move to Raleigh. “Anytime you have a young kid coming over here from another country, first there’s the culture shock, then you have the language barrier,” says Muhammad’s uncle, Noor Bharde, who, along with his wife, sponsored the immigration application for Muhammad and his mother. “It was very much a struggle.”

    Muhammad received ESL instruction and other supports starting as a fifth-grader, and his aunt and uncle, who’ve been in the States since the 1980s, helped as much as they could. But Muhammad was still progressing slowly by the time he reached high school.

    Then, he met Jennifer Lowry.

    The student becomes the teacher

    To an extent, Lowry could identify with Muhammad. His freshman year was her first year in the Wake County Public School System as a literacy coach, having moved from Robeson County. There was a learning curve for her, too.

    In her academic literacy class, she saw Muhammad’s potential, “how sweet he was and movivated he was to learn.” He just needed a boost of confidence.

    In ninth grade, Muhammad was taking Math I, while everyone else in the academic literacy class was in Introduction to Math. So she asked Muhammad to tutor the other students twice a week.

    The result? Muhammad got his confidence boost, and every single one of his classmates passed their math class. “It changed the dynamic of the way that class was,” Lowry says. “I saw that in him, to make him a leader, and it ended up helping everybody.”

    ‘See where it takes me’

    Lowry didn’t teach Muhammad again after ninth grade, but she became a faithful mentor and tutor, meeting him before and after school. She would help him talk out his papers, which led to better results. Later, she helped him with college applications and essays. “That’s the kind of student he is, he will seek out help when he needs it,” Lowry says. “And he doesn’t wait ‘til the last minute.”

    He started taking honors classes his sophomore year, and has continued to do well. Lowry also referred Muhammad to Jennifer Hulsey, who runs the Athens Drive Health Sciences Academy. “I asked Muhammad, ‘What are your college and career goals?’ He said he was interested in sciences,” Lowry says. “I’m grateful for (Hulsey), because she opened doors for him. She was gracious enough to accept it when I said, ‘You need Muhammad in the Health Sciences Academy.’”

    His studies included an internship with Cary Orthopaedics. Though he ultimately decided physical therapy wasn’t the career path for him, Muhammad says, “That’s actually a good thing, to learn that now. It was a good experience. I just wanted to try a career pathway, because I didn’t know what direction I wanted to go to, so I was just trying stuff out to see where it takes me.”

    He’ll head to East Carolina University in the fall, intending to study mechanical engineering.

    Muhammad Khan poses in front of ECU pennant. He will attend the university starting this fall.

    ‘Real life’

    What kept Muhammad coming in before and after school, day after day, to try to get ahead? Early on in high school, he gave himself a pep talk. “I was like, ‘I can do this,’” he recalls. “I had to do it. I didn’t have any other choice. That’s what my aunt and my mom sacrificed to come here for.”

    Bharde, Muhammad’s uncle, says his difficult beginnings may have given him the tenacity he needed to overcome what might seem insurmountable obstacles to others. “I’m sure he had a different mindset than a normal kid who has both parents and is just kind of going through the normal life routine,” Bharde says. “I’m sure, mentally, he was prepared to do a lot of things. A lot of events happened that prepared him for real life.”

    Watching Muhammad cross the stage, Bharde and his family could feel nothing but pride. “He was always a very sharp, very energetic kid,” Bharde says. “I knew whatever he set his mind on, he would do it. It’s just a happy feeling to see him graduate and going off to ECU, living on his own. Especially for me and my wife, we sponsored them to come to America, we wanted to see him succeed, and he has.”

    ‘Just the beginning’

    Muhammad says he wouldn’t be here without Lowry’s help. “She was just a motivator, a guider, a pusher,” he says.

    Lowry says she’s encouraged Muhammad to keep doing at ECU what got him there in the first place: study hard, and ask for help. “I’m just beyond proud of him,” Lowry says. “Because he shows every student that it’s possible. That’s what I think of when I think of Muhammad.”

    Muhammad graduated on June 12, and called it a great feeling. Having come through so much to get to this point, he’s ready for whatever lies ahead. “I had a great high school experience at Athens Drive High,” he says. “I had a lot of great teachers, made a lot of new friends. This is a big achievement, but this is just the beginning of the journey ahead.”

    Muhammad Khan, Class of 2019, poses outside Athens Drive High School