Safa Hamid

Safa Hamid is the youngest of seven siblings. "We're a lively bunch," she said. "Whenever we go outside, people always think we're fighting or yelling, but we're just talking. There's so many of us!"

Family has always inspired her. In tenth grade, her youngest brother, Irfan, who is one year older than her, decided to take the early-exit exam from high school. Hamid was already taking classes at Santiago Canyon College, in Orange, so she decided to follow suit. She passed and enrolled full time in community college at just 15 years old.

On her counselor's recommendation, she opted for a psychology class there to start chipping away at general ed requirements. It was her first ever college class, and she was immediately smitten with the subject. "When I took the class, I had a professor who I loved and still am connected with to this day," she said. She started taking more psychology classes and came to appreciate the breadth of the field; she liked that she got to learn about not only the brain and consciousness but also social interactions and interpersonal relationships.

Now 19 years old, she's a fourth-year psychology major about to graduate from UCI. (She transferred after two years at Santiago Canyon.) For her senior honors thesis, Hamid is leading a UROP project researching Afghan refugee women and the barriers they experience when trying to access healthcare, with support from Heike Thiel De Bocanegra, UCI adjunct professor of obstetrics & gynecology.

Hamid has also conducted diverse research with neurology postdoc students, under Andre Obenaus, UCI professor of pediatrics and director of the Preclinical and Translational Imaging Center. "One of our projects, for example, was focused on studying the long-term effect of traumatic brain injury and associated differences between males and females during recovery from TBI," she said.

Obenaus and Thiel De Bocanegra have both been influential in Hamid's educational path. "I remember, going into the lab, I knew nothing about research. And now I feel very confident about my research skills," she said. "I came into UCI with no research experience, and they were willing to help teach me all the ways. They worked with me and took me under their wings to guide me."

After graduating cum laude this year, she's ready for a break. "This is going to be my first time I've ever taken a summer off!" She plans to seek employment in a clinical psychology lab while taking some time to mull over her longer term goals. Although she's undecided about her career, she's certain about her passion for working with underserved communities and intends to go to grad school.

Hamid lives in Tustin with her family, which emigrated from Kandahar, Afghanistan, to the U.S. when she was just four. But she's come to think of the UCI grounds as her second home. "I'm always at UCI," she said, whether she's studying at the honors collegium area in the Bio Sci library or socializing at the Muslim Student Union. The meditation space, primarily used for prayer, is sentimental for Hamid — it's where she forged bonds with her closest school friends. In her free time, she works with a number of organizations on campus, including Team KiPOW, which mentors fifth graders in healthy behavior, and the Shifa Society of Muslim Pre-Health Students (not to mention the off-campus Afghan Learning Academy, where she leads efforts to provide educational services for children in Afghanistan).

Hamid's older sister Merwa, a 2021 UCI alum, is currently doing genetics research at UCI. Even if she wasn't, Hamid would try to bring her. She loves to bring her family to campus to hang out or work with her. "I'm always bugging them," she said. Her mom used to walk around Aldrich Park while she was in class so they could spend time together afterward. On weekends, they often grab ice cream or food together at UTC.

Meanwhile, her youngest brother — the one who inspired her to leave high school early — will also be graduating from undergrad this year, from UCSD. "Everything just flew by so quickly," she said. The youngest in her family, she's feeling nervous. But she's also thrilled to be starting her post-undergrad journey. "I'm eager to see what lies ahead for me," she said.

All seven of the Hamid children will be graduates of the UC system. "We have two accountants, a teacher, a genetics researcher, and a business analyst," she said. "There's a lot of going on."

It's a direct result of the sacrifices her parents have made. "Back home in Afghanistan, my dad was a mayor of a city," she said. Her father built a thriving small business here, a testament to his resilience and ambition, she says. For her part, she is grateful that he and Hamid's mother took the brave step of starting from scratch in the U.S. so that the children could have better lives. "They both understand the true value of an education," she said.  "Everything that we do — all my siblings do — is to make them proud."

Hamid is very aware of the challenges facing young women in Afghanistan, where access to proper education is far from guaranteed, and she tries to enlighten the uninformed. "This endeavor isn't just for me, but for the collective empowerment of us all. I hope to amplify their voices and continue to advocate for their rights," she said.

"I carry their aspirations close to my heart."

-Alison Van Houten for UCI Social Sciences

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