The fast-paced and rigorous course load of college is challenging for most, but add a newborn into the equation and it can require many adjustments and laser focus to succeed. 

Neelma Bhatti, a Fulbright scholar from Pakistan, started her graduate program in computer science at Virginia Tech in 2017. She viewed the Blacksburg community as an ideal place to spend time during her graduate studies because of its “modern infrastructure and scenic landscape,” but she had to embrace the challenges of being a new mom in a new land.

“It was hard initially to live without my husband in a foreign country while coping with an unfamiliar living and study environment,” she said. 

Bhatti struggled to find access to a support system for mothers — especially mothers in STEM fields. Faced with these new challenges and obstacles, she channeled her struggles into her research. A Ph.D. candidate focusing on human-computer interaction, Bhatti is adapting a variety of qualitative research methods to investigate parents’ use of technology as a caregiving tool. She is also designing interactive media for children based on parents' context of use and sought-after gratifications. She’s exploring the potential of using screen- and voice-based interfaces to facilitate young children's secondary language learning. 

Neelma Bhatti and her child on a beach with the Golden Gate Bridge in the background

Throughout this experience, she has learned the importance of prioritizing her mental health. Dealing with emotions such as depression or anxiety and even “mom guilt” is common for new moms. She suggests finding an advisor, a mentor, or even a friend to talk with. For her, her husband was her ultimate support and cheered her on throughout her five-year journey. “Never hesitate to seek help.” She found that her departmental resources for mental health as well as her advisor helped her a great deal as she navigated life’s challenges.  

At the conclusion of her program, Bhatti plans to return to Pakistan and pursue a postdoctoral degree or work as a user experience researcher while holding a part-time teaching position.

Thinking back on her experience, she has learned that “in the end, there is no gain without pain.” As she is the first woman in her family to pursue a Ph.D., she reflects on how it seemed like a bad idea initially to leave her comfort zone to pursue higher education, as it was a path less traveled, but she recognizes that doing so has helped her gain immense respect, confidence, and a sense of accomplishment over the years, especially the prestige of being a Fulbright scholar.

As she forges a new path not only for herself but for women after her, she states that she dreams of a society that values girls for their intelligence, persistence, and hard work. For young women growing up in our society, she wishes for equal and safe opportunities for them to pursue their dreams and broaden their horizons in their own homeland and abroad.

Written by Aryn Lovell, a junior majoring in mechanical engineering.