Nora Bouzihay, a doctoral student of education at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, became the influence that she wanted to see. She was the first female in her family to graduate from high school, attend college, obtain a bachelor’s and master’s degree, and pursue a doctorate.
Bouzihay’s parents had always stressed to her and her siblings the importance of getting an education. They traveled from Morocco, a country in North Africa, to the United States as a young couple to provide a better life for themselves and the children they planned to someday have. From the start, they realized education would be the key to their children’s success.
“Go to school, get an education, the more knowledge the better,” Bouzihay recited. “That’s always been ingrained in my mind.”
‘I had to do everything on my own’
When Bouzihay completed her tenth-grade year at Nettleton High School, she made a decision that would put her educational pursuit into overdrive. She was accepted into and attended the Arkansas School for Mathematics, Sciences and the Arts (ASMSA) in Hot Springs, Arkansas.
“[ASMSA] was really amazing,” she said. “I got a lot of exposure to and preparation for college. In fact, I did my senior thesis on diabetic research here at UA Little Rock in the chemistry department.”
Once Bouzihay became a freshman at UA Little Rock, she was more than confident in her ability to succeed in higher education because of her pre-college experience at ASMSA. Bouzihay understood that she would encounter challenges that were unique to her, so she did everything in her power to ensure that none of those obstacles slowed her stride.
“It was tough because I had to do everything on my own like explore, network, and figure out what I needed to do to become successful,” Bouzihay said, “but I received endless support from my parents who continued to push me.”
Finding her passion
While weaving her web of connections and opportunities, Bouzihay stumbled across a program that changed the course of her quest as a future scientific researcher. Although she’d enjoyed being a part of the Donaghey and Science Scholars programs at UA Little Rock, it was the National Model Arab League that resonated with her inner self.
The National Model Arab League is a student leadership development program designed to give students a taste of life as international diplomats. Once Bouzihay graduated from UA Little Rock with her bachelor’s in biology, she took her talents to the Clinton School of Public Service where she learned the ins and outs of diplomacy through public service.
Life in Dubai
As a requirement of the master’s program at the Clinton School, Bouzihay was tasked with choosing an international location for her public service abroad. Bouzihay was cleared to study in Dubai and spent eight months working with the country’s U.S. Department of State and United Arab Emirates.
Once again, Bouzihay was on her own. This time, however, she found herself in need. Nine days after she arrived in Dubai, Bouzihay’s appendix ruptured.
“I had to have emergency surgery,” Bouzihay said. “It got so bad that the doctor said if I didn’t have surgery right away I would die because of the rupture.”
Bouzihay’s mother rushed to the Middle East to be by her daughter’s side and helped nurse Bouzihay back to health. Once Bouzihay was able to work, she did so non stop, so much so that she was asked to extend her semester-long stay in Dubai to work on other projects, as well as projects in Morocco.
This time allowed Bouzihay to reconnect with her roots and visit her family. Her grandmother in Morocco had fallen ill and was hospitalized, so Bouzihay felt joy, comfort, and security being by her side, helping care for her grandmother.
“My grandmother always told me to finish school,” Bouzihay said. “She wasn’t traditionally educated, but she was educated through life’s experiences. She never knew how to read and write, but she had wisdom.”
Bouzihay’s grandmother passed away last spring, and to honor her legacy, Bouzihay dedicated her master’s degree to her.
Can’t stop, won’t stop
Following her experience in Dubai, Bouzihay was sure of what she wanted to do with the rest of her life. Rather than becoming a medical doctor/biomedical researcher as she’d once imagined, Bouzihay longed to work with women and children in the Middle East and North Africa to create a pathway for their future.
To turn this dream into a reality, Bouzihay started the trek to obtaining her doctoral degree. She is currently working on her Doctorate in Education at UA Little Rock, while serving as a graduate assistant for undergraduate academic advising and working with first-generation college students and minorities.
“It’s been a goal of mine to not stop until I get to the end,” Bouzihay said. “In the field that I want to work in, the more degrees, the more competitive you are. My parents sacrificed so much, so I can’t stop until I’m done.”
Although Bouzihay has a load of responsibilities on her shoulders, she’s made room for one more. She recently launched her own hijab/scarf company, Nowara Co. Nowara, which means “flower,” was the nickname given to her by her grandmother.
“Nowara Co. was a continuation of my grandmother’s legacy to instill in and empower young girls and women to embrace their natural [beauty],” Bouzihay said.
For every three scarves Bouzihay’s company sells, one will go to a refugee in the Middle East. Although refugees receive, food, clothes, health supplies, and water, Bouzihay says they do not receive scarves.
Freedom in the hijab
About a year and half ago, Bouzihay committed to wearing the hijab daily. Although she was first uneasy of the looks and backlash she would receive from people outside of the Muslim faith, she felt fulfilled in making that decision and wanted other women to feel free and proud, just as she did, when wearing the scarf.
“I was terrified because the political era that we were in at that time was hard,” Bouzihay explained. “Everyday, it’s hard to walk outside wearing a hijab. As soon as someone sees you, they know you’re a Muslim so they already have that image of you. I knew that my life was going to change 180 degrees, and that’s very terrifying because you don’t know how it’s going to be. God blessed me with the respect from people of all corners of life. You get the people who say racial slurs every once in a while, but it all comes down to faith.”
Bouzihay has been more than an inspiration to her friends and family. She’s established a legacy through education, diligence, dedication, and resilience. After graduating from UA Little Rock for a second time, this time with her Ph.D in 2022, she plans to take and pass her foreign service exam, head to the Middle East, and do the work that she loves.