Batur Shairzadeh’s parents immigrated to America from Afghanistan, looking for a better life for themselves and their future children. When the 22-year-old Queens, N.Y., native collects his bachelor’s degree in nursing from Binghamton University’s Decker College of Nursing and Health Sciences May 12, he’ll be the first person in his family to graduate from college — taking another step in making their dream a reality.
But Shairzadeh’s journey as a first-generation immigrant and first-generation college student hasn’t been easy.
Diagnosed with type 1 diabetes at an early age, Shairzadeh and his family had difficulty understanding and managing the disease.
“The first 18 years of my life I really struggled, and my A1C [a test that measures blood sugar] was constantly at dangerous levels,” he said. “A lot of that struggle came from not understanding the information we were given by providers because of language. We were textbook examples of an immigrant family that’s at risk due to poor health literacy.”
Interpreters translated information from healthcare providers, but most spoke Farsi. While his parents generally understood Farsi, they speak Uzbeki.
“Due to dialect differences, my parents couldn’t understand a lot of the information the doctors were giving them,” Shairzadeh said. “Often, we left the endocrinologist’s office not really understanding anything.”
Reaching for Binghamton
Growing up with a serious, poorly managed disease in a family that struggled financially had a negative effect on Shairzadeh’s performance in school.
“My first two years in high school I did pretty much everything else except schoolwork,” he said. “I was getting into trouble; I was failing exams. My overall average was less than a 70.”
During his junior year at Long Island City High School, Shairzadeh realized he had to change if he wanted to earn a college degree. Further encouragement came from a teacher, Séamus McCoy, who saw Shairzadeh’s potential.
“He said there were ‘streaks of brightness’ on certain assignments I had done,” Shairzadeh recalled. “That motivated me.”
McCoy had attended Binghamton and thought it might be a good fit for Shairzadeh. He helped Shairzadeh apply to the University through the Educational Opportunity Program, which provides access, academic support and financial aid to students who show promise for succeeding in college but who may not otherwise be offered admission.
Having no expectation of getting into Binghamton made receiving an acceptance email from the University — complete with digital confetti — a surreal experience for Shairzadeh.
He entered Harpur College of Arts and Sciences as a biological sciences major with the goal of becoming an endocrinologist, but by the spring semester of his first year Shairzadeh began to explore other options.
Nursing soon became his top choice after learning about the profession from several nurses, including alum and former EOP student David Almonte, who graduated from Harpur College in 2013 before completing Decker College of Nursing and Health Sciences’ accelerated nursing program in 2017.
“David told me what Decker’s nursing program was like, what he had gone through during the COVID pandemic and about his career as a critical care nurse in the Bronx, and it intrigued me,” Shairzadeh said. “That conversation was a pivotal moment in guiding my decision to nursing.”
Completing the prerequisites for the undergraduate nursing program made Shairzadeh even more certain nursing was the right choice for him. It also gave him a greater understanding about diabetes.
A safe place to be seen and heard
“When I first met Batur, I realized this young man — though having gone through many obstacles — wasn’t going to give up,” said Joanna Cardona-Lozada, senior academic counselor in the EOP. “After his first semester was completed, I asked him what he wanted to major in and he replied, ’I want to be a nurse. I want to help people like me.’ From that moment on, he worked tirelessly to successfully IUT [intra-university transfer] into Decker College.”
EOP staff helped Shairzadeh through the transfer. He also took advantage of all the resources available through EOP, such as tutoring, counseling and supplemental instruction. But the EOP gives students like Shairzadeh a great deal more than just academic help.
“EOP is a safe place for students from underprivileged financial situations and underrepresented backgrounds to voice our struggles and express our adversity,” he said. “Many students in EOP have to send money back home to our families, so we have to work and we have to balance working with being students. We wear a lot of hats and that creates a lot of pressure.”
In Shairzadeh’s case, that includes serving as a resident assistant for four years; participating in the University’s First-year Research Immersion program; and being a member of MALIK Fraternity Inc., a multicultural fraternity for Black and Latino students.
Support from EOP staff helped Shairzadeh persevere when his responsibilities — on campus and at home — became overwhelming, as well as when he felt like he didn’t fit in. He added that many of the EOP counselors come from backgrounds similar to his and other EOP students, and that really helps them connect.
“Many times, Batur would walk into my office tired from studying, exams, clinicals, but always with a smile on his face,” Cardona-Lozada said. “He’d share that he was going to push through and I’d reply, ’I know you will. You’ve got this!’ I’m proud of all his accomplishments; EOP is proud!”
Returning to his roots
Like his classmates, Shairzadeh will be studying for the National Council Licensure Examination for Registered Nurses (NCLEX-RN, the test required to become a registered nurse) in the weeks following graduation. Once he passes, he intends to return to New York City and work as a registered nurse, caring for people from a variety of ethnic, racial and economic backgrounds.
“Not everybody has equal access to healthcare, and I want to help bridge that gap for people in underserved communities as well as folks from underserved backgrounds,” Shairzadeh said. “I want to use my experience with diabetes to positively influence others so they don’t have to go through what I did.”
Shairzadeh sees his commitment to caring for others as his civic responsibility, according to Cardona-Lozada. “Batur has made his dream of becoming a nurse come true. He solidified his desire to go into the nursing profession to assist in communities where people struggle to afford quality care and treatments,” she said.
Longer-term, Shairzadeh will likely pursue an advanced practice nursing degree to become a nurse practitioner.