Before Maeesha Maliha, 19, was even a teenager, she found herself celebrating her 12th birthday in a most unusual way.
There were no parties, no friends or family gathered, no candles and no cake. It was, nonetheless, an event she would later look back on as one of the best birthday presents she would ever receive.
Maeesha and her mother, Lubna Sarkar, then 33, had left their home in Dahka, Bangladesh, for the United States and Killeen.
Maeesha began her educational journey at Trimmier Elementary School, a fifth-grade student who could not speak a word of English. And while it was true that her knowledge of English was understandably poor, assessment testing had also revealed that her math and science skills more than made up for it.
She was placed in an ESL program designed to allow her to comfortably mainstream into English speaking classes, but that did not mean it would be easy.
Her chestnut-colored eyes alive with emotion, Maeesha remembers that day vividly, seeing it again through the eyes of the child that she was.
“Of course, I was well-aware that I spoke no English,” she remembered. “And I thought it would hold me back. But even at that young age, I knew learning it was the key to everything else I wanted to achieve, so I was determined to master it, and I did.”
She described devoting herself to learning this language with a single-minded purpose and maturity far beyond her tender years.
“Whenever anyone left the house to do anything,” she explained, “I made them take me with them. I had learned the English alphabet in school back in Bangladesh, but I hadn’t ever used it.”
Arming herself with that and with the fundamentals she was learning as an ESL student at Trimmier, Maeesha spent her first summer in the U.S. determined to learn English, describing it what she called, “The Taco Bell experience.”
“I could look at a picture on a menu, see the word, point at it, practice saying it, and eventually, I built a working vocabulary,” she said.
But determination alone did not address every obstacle. When she read aloud from a fifth-grade history book, she said, she could pronounce words, but she was acutely aware that she did not sound like the other children. But by the time she entered the sixth grade, she not only did so with improved language skills, but also with the knowledge that she could and did teach herself.
“That was an important moment for me,” she remembered. “In Bangladesh, education was not free like it is here in the U.S. My mother’s family, my mother, and my stepfather all contributed financially so that I could go to school.”
Here, in this country where she had barely been a citizen for a full year, she understood that not only was it free, but that it was a benefit she would not ever take for granted — once again demonstrating a wisdom of one much older than she.
Women and girls, she added, did not typically pursue courses or careers in math and science; and when they did, it was because they were from families that had the financial means to allow them to do so.
And in those rare instances that it did happen, women were not rewarded with opportunities, as the social structure presumed that men were heads of household, and as such, better suited for rare and coveted jobs in science and math.
Here in the U.S., however, Maeesha knew that she was free to pursue her love for math and science. As a result, both have flourished.
Entering the Early College High School in 2016, she did so with the same intention that guided her in fifth grade, noting that she knew she wanted to pursue her college degree.
“I wanted to challenge myself,” she said. “We weren’t given educational opportunities like that back home, and I knew it was rigorous, but I wasn’t afraid of hard work. I was ready for it, and I knew it was essential for where I wanted to go.”
Graduating with honors in 2020, Maeesha steps into the next phase of her higher education journey this fall as a new student at Texas A&M University-Central Texas — this time as a biology student minoring in chemistry, a recipient of the coveted Texas A&M University Board of Regents scholarship, and a future medical school applicant at the flagship A&M in College Station.
Dr. Laura Weiser-Erlandson, chair of the A&M-Central Texas science programs welcomed Maeesha into the company of the program, noting that the number of women and girls in the program has risen consistently over the last five years.
“All of our students have gone on to incredibly meaningful careers,” she said. “They’ve found work in the medical community, the forestry service, graduate programs, and medical schools.”
And, it was with that goal in mind that Maeesha embraced another unique opportunity with the help of the University’s Career and Professional Services staff. She applied for and received a competitive placement as a Disney intern scheduled to begin next month.
Her courses, she says, will be completed online until the internship ends in January 2022.
Jessica Doner, A&M-Central Texas Career and Professional Development Coordinator, has worked hand-in-hand with Maeesha, nurturing her long-term goals, offering career advice designed to enhance her candidacy for medical school.
“While it might sound like Disney has nothing to do with training as a medical doctor, exactly the opposite is true,” Doner observed.
“Medical schools are traditionally highly competitive environments, and those vying for admissions must have exceptional academic records in advanced mathematics, biology, chemistry, and the advanced sciences.”
“But the medical profession has begun to pay attention to those candidates who have both the people skills and the scientific training. This Disney internship is perfectly suited to demonstrate that.”
Of all the lessons Maeesha has learned in the first two decades of her young life, she cherishes those opportunities that at first presented themselves as challenges, she says, because they yield the best rewards.
Looking back, she says, she challenged herself to learn English in record time. Later, she challenged herself to enroll in and complete Early College High School. Having graduated with honors, she immediately enrolled at A&M-Central Texas, again challenging herself to navigate a rigorous pre-med curriculum, and, as if that were not enough, an additional six-month internship with Disney in Florida which will require her to both work and complete full-time university coursework.
“Big challenges yield bigger payoffs,” Maeesha said matter of factly. “Just like big risks have big rewards. It’s never easy, but if it is one thing I have learned, it is that when a person puts their entire self into setting big goals, it is like that decision becomes the key that unlocks the next big thing.”