Zahra Khuwaja is from Karachi, Pakistan. She is pursuing a Bachelor of Science in Architectural Engineering, a Master of Engineering in Urban Systems with a focus in transportation, and a minor in Psychology and Business. She is involved with Leadership Academy, Society of Women Engineers, and Alpha Sigma Alpha. She is currently on the executive board for American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers, and Tau Beta Pi. Previously, she has been involved with the Student Government Association and Engineers Without Borders. Her passion includes sustainability in infrastructure and she would love to one day incorporate sustainable solutions into transportation infrastructure. She is also passionate about combining business and engineering skills to create more sustainable community development projects. Zahra has additionally interned as a Structural and Mechanical Engineer while studying at Illinois Tech. That experience has helped her better shape her plans for the future. She realized sustainable solutions haven’t been touched on a lot in industries so she wants to push for more green development and solutions. Outside of her career development, during college, she started boxing and fell in love with the sport.
Q: What do you think makes you, specifically, a good leader?
A: I think one thing that makes me a good leader is transparency. In any groups that I’ve been involved in, I’ve always ensured that information is accessible to everyone and that there is open communication, so people feel comfortable speaking up. To me, transparency acts as an equalizer and I will always try to encourage transparency in whatever team I am in.
Q: What do you think is vital for anyone to be a good leader?
A: Empathy. I know that this has been talked about a lot, but a lot of emphasis has to be placed on this because serving as an empathetic leader makes you become accessible to people which then positively contributes to the team dynamics. Having empathy not only helps you be more considerate but also makes sure that all voices are heard. Especially with the pandemic, not everybody is on the same playing field when it comes to communication. Time zones and or a lack of proper technology may discourage communication. This is why it is important to practice empathy because it becomes easier for people to communicate and that ties into my previous answer concerning transparency. People would, in turn, be more open to be vulnerable and open up to you which will then create a learning space for them and for you as well.
Q: What would you say is an event or time in your life that you feel really turned you into a leader?
A: For me, it’s a group of events that happened that turned me into the leader I am today. Firstly, becoming a corporate chair as part of Society of Women Engineers’ Executive Board is when I really felt like I was a leader. I was in an environment where I was expected to complete different action items such as organizing events and reaching out to companies to bring them on campus. Taking initiative to lead those events helped me reach a turning point. Before taking on that role, I had never felt that I was truly a leader. Also making sure that I was transparent in what I was doing helped me a lot because it prevented me from being double booked. These events taught me a lot, in terms of time management as well. Additionally, I was put in a spot where I was encouraged to push my boundaries as a leader which helped in my leadership development.
Q: In what ways has leadership academy specifically helped you become a better leader? What has the academy meant to you?
A: The Leadership Academy has been a great source of growth for me. When I joined the organization, I went through Imposter Syndrome and kept asking myself why I am here, but eventually I realized that no one is perfect and the Academy has always promoted the idea that learning is a continuous process. The Academy is a place where I also received constant feedback and ways to improve myself. That feedback also helped me become a better leader. Leadership Academy also gave me the opportunity to become a mentor for high school students. I never had this type of formal mentor and mentee relationship, but that experience allowed me to learn a lot more about myself. Another instance that had an impact on my life was when I was practicing for the Collegiate Leadership Competition. Even though the competition was cancelled due to COVID, the practices themselves helped me and allowed me to learn more about my team members. Another thing that stood out to me in the Academy was that everybody was different and had different personalities. Each scholar had their own leadership style and brought something different to the table. I am grateful for the community and friendships I made while being in the Academy. In the end, I also learned to be okay with being myself, and with being in a process of consistent growth.
Q: How have you changed since joining the Academy?
A: When I first joined the Academy, I was mostly quiet and kind of took a back seat in most events. It was a bit overwhelming because everybody had such strong personalities but slowly, I started taking more initiative. For example, after observing for a while, I decided to be involved in the Illinois Tech Student Speak survey that the Academy was a part of. I also took initiative to participate in the Collegiate Leadership Competition. As a senior, I participated in the Capstone Project where I co-facilitated a Seminar and I ended up enjoying it a lot more than I thought. Again, receiving feedback helped me to constantly find ways to improve myself. All these experiences I’ve had in the Academy allowed me to become more confident and self-assured in the leadership roles I have pursued.
Q: What career objectives do you have once you graduate from Illinois Tech?
A: My goal is to become a sustainable infrastructure engineer. I want to be part of projects that are sustainable and community driven. I want to either work with buildings, bridges and transportation and figure out how to make those projects not only beneficial for the community but for the environment as well.
Q: What’s a piece of advice you wish someone else had given you when you went through a hard time?
A: To be easy on yourself. Especially being in a competitive environment such as Illinois Tech, it is essential to remind yourself that it is okay to make mistakes as long as you learn from them and forgive yourself. Forgiving yourself is also really important whether in friendships, academics, and in your own career choice. Forgiving oneself will help you progress a lot further and move on. Also do not take things too seriously because life is too short for that.
Q: What’s one thing about you that makes you, you?
A: I think it is my spontaneity. Spontaneous plans have always been the most fun for me. I do not think too much about everything in life, if I feel like doing something, I’ll just do it. My humor is also very spontaneous and that is something that makes me, me.