UCF alumna Sarah Kureshi can be described in many words.
Doctor. Wife. Muslim. American. Runner. Professor. Activist. Woman. Boundary-breaker.
But her favorite word is student.
“I learned how to be a lifelong student at UCF,” Kureshi said. “When I came to UCF, I had such amazing professors, and within the honors college I took some really innovative classes. It was during my time at UCF that I cultivated a love of learning and appreciating the learning aspect of all my classes.”
Kureshi’s childhood was one of many contradictions. Born to parents of Pakistani descent, she grew up in Okeechobee where the hottest thing in town was the rodeo. As a Muslim, she attended Christian school until eighth grade.
“It helped me find my identity at an early age. It helped me have an appreciation for different cultures and different people,” Kureshi said. “To be one of the only few brown people in a predominantly white town – it was great to be the spokesperson and educate my friends about what it means to be a Muslim or what Pakistani food is like.”
Kureshi never lost that sense of identity. Last year, she acted as a voice for women’s rights at a press conference held by Human Rights Watch, urging Saudi Arabia to allow female athletes to compete in London at the Olympic Games.
She was happy to do it because she knows firsthand the impact sports can have on a female.
Kureshi joined Okeechobee High School’s cross country team as a sophomore and has loved running ever since. Always a diligent student, Kureshi did not expect to continue her athletic career when she chose to attend UCF.
She excelled in the classroom as a biology major, but Kureshi felt like something was missing. She decided to walk-on to the cross country team and proved her worth was good enough for a scholarship.
During her career, she was named the NCAA Woman of the Year for the state of Florida in 2001. She earned all-conference third team honors in the 800 meters and was an eight-time Academic All-Conference performer.
Yet it was one of her not-so-shining moments that she remembers the most. At a conference championship meet, Kureshi was the favorite to win the 1500 meters. In the first 100 meters of the race, one of the competitors accidentally tripped Kureshi.
She picked herself up and tried to finish the race but could only last another lap.
“For me, that moment meant a lot because through my experience with sports and at UCF, it taught me discipline, determination, how to win and how to lose with grace,” Kureshi said. “It showed me what I had within myself to be able to get up and at least try to finish the race.”
UCF also helped Kureshi discover the career path that she eventually and successfully pursued.
During one of her courses, she came across a book entitled “Waking Up in America” by Pedro Jose Greer that detailed his work with homeless clinics in Miami.
“I kind of had an A-ha! moment,” Kureshi said. “I was like wow I can combine these two interests and work as a physician in the community and address larger issues of community health while at the same time seeing patients. Ever since then, I’ve gone along that same track and I’m doing what I love to do.”
Following her time at UCF, Kureshi pursued her master’s degree in public health at Harvard. As part of her thesis work on gender-based violence, she traveled to New Delhi, India, in 2005 to work with sex-trafficking victims.
She lived with roughly 40 women and girls, some as young as 5-6 years old.
“You can imagine the stories that come out of those experiences,” Kureshi said. “It’s a really sad, horrifying thing that these girls have had to go through. To see the work that is being done by organizations like the one I worked with, and to see the capacity of human spirit to bounce back and find inspiration in the little things and to see what these girls were doing, was really motivating and inspiring for me. It has impacted the work I’ve done since then.”
Kureshi went back in 2007 to again work with the victims and also teach health classes within the community in the hopes of educating people in the area to try to prevent the crimes from happening. She still keeps in touch with the president of the organization, who will call or email her when one of the women gets married or secures a job.
Following her first stint in India, Kureshi got another amazing opportunity that afforded her the chance to act as an ambassador once again.
A national Islamic organization contacted Kureshi along with other American Muslim females seeking athletes to compete in the fourth Islamic Women Games in Tehran. Kureshi ended up being the only American available to compete. What she didn’t realize at the time was that she would become the first American female to compete in Iran since the revolution in 1979.
Kureshi enjoyed interacting with the other athletes and educating them on her life in America.
“Their biggest question to me was how can you be American and Muslim at the same time?” Kureshi recalled. “It was shocking to me that it was so hard for them to grasp that. I talked about how much I love America and how much I appreciate what the country has to offer me. One of those things is religious freedom and I’ve been able to practice my religion however I choose to.
“When I came back here, I got to educate people about Iran and the Muslim women games. I was with 1,300 Muslim women athletes, who were skilled, trained athletes. The image that comes to mind when you think of a Muslim woman is a woman in a black veil, burqa, and to think of all these women who are playing all these different sports and training all the time, I got to speak about that.”
At 33 years old, it seems Kureshi has packed a lifetime’s worth of experiences in no time at all. Nowadays, she spends her time as a family medical physician at Unity Health Care in northeast Washington, D.C., providing care to uninsured and lower-income households. She also teaches a few courses at Georgetown about health and human rights.
She pays it forward the best way she knows how.
“I’ve been fortunate,” Kureshi said. “I would like to continue to provide clinical care to communities. Realistically it’s hard to travel to so many countries as you get older and want to settle in one place. My contribution is through educating medical students through global health.”