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Coming Into Her Own

Biochemistry Junior Isma Khokhar reflects on her journey of becoming a leader of UT's AAPI student community
Isma Khokhar

When Isma Khokhar first came to UT Austin, she quickly found her community within the Asian Desi Pacific Islander Collective (ADPAC), a student-run agency led by the Multicultural Engagement Center. While attending a virtual ADPAC meeting, she discovered many members shared similar experiences navigating life and school with intersectional identities.

“I’m half Japanese, half Pakistani, and I don’t necessarily look like either of my ethnicities,” says Khokhar, who is a junior majoring in biochemistry. “I used to feel isolated based on my looks and felt that I had to prove that I’m a part of the community. I’m at a point now where I’m very happy to share my mixed heritage with others.”

To help more students feel less alone in their experiences, Khokhar works to bring them together for candid discussions about various issues, including common stereotypes and misconceptions (the “model minority” myth, the Asian American monolith, etc.), the glass ceiling and mental health. Every fall, she looks forward to hosting the six-part Leadership Institute, which covers these topics and more in a welcoming setting.

“It is very humbling and rewarding to help provide this space where people can talk about topics that they typically don’t feel comfortable addressing with their peers,” Khokhar says.

In addition to discussion groups, Khokhar organizes various other campus events including speaker sessions, film screenings and the time-honored GraduAsian event.

“I love seeing people bringing their friends and families to events, especially GraduAsian,” Khokhar says. “Their smiles and laughter bring a lot of joy to me. It’s so rewarding to see people having fun and bonding with one another.”

Last fall, Khokhar also joined the University Union’s Events and Entertainment (E+E) Asian American Cultures Committee to help organize many large-scale events featuring celebrity speakers, musicians and live performances.

“These groups have helped me become more vocal and comfortable expressing my identity,” Khokhar says. “Also, I do a lot of emceeing at events, which is something I never thought I would do. If you told me three years ago that I would be speaking in front of a crowd of 600 people, I would never have believed you.”

Khokhar attributes much of her success to her parents who emigrated to the United States back in the late 1990s with nothing but two suitcases.

“They had no connections in the U.S., so it was a difficult journey,” Khokhar says. “My mom had to learn English and ended up getting her master’s degree. And my father always told my brother and I that education opens so many doors. I learned from him how to stay curious about everything and to always be open to learning more.”

Back home, Khokhar loves spending time with loved ones on special holidays. Some of her fondest memories include cooking up a feast with her mother a few days before Oshogatsu (Japanese New Years Day) and celebrating Eid al-Fitr (the end of Ramadan).

“I love cooking with my mom on New Years Day and learning how to pass down her cooking to others,” Khokhar says. “On my dad’s side, I most enjoy celebrating our accomplishments after Ramadan. It shows dedication to God, and that you’re humble to people who don’t have the same resources as you. During this time, you help others out as much as you can.”

Looking toward the future, Khokhar aims to continue helping others by pursuing a career in medicine. Until then, she plans to soak up every moment of her undergraduate experience on the Forty Acres.

“I can’t imagine being at another university,” says Khokhar, who is set to embark on an internship at McGovern Medical School in Houston this summer. “UT has an abundance of opportunities and resources—and even though it’s a big place, there are so many communities and resources that can make the campus feel smaller and more welcoming.”