Azra Hussain

Religious studies graduate earns degree while running nonprofit organization

By

Rachel Bunning

Editor’s note: This is part of a series of profiles for fall 2019 commencement.

Azra Hussain was born and raised in Kuwait with a family who highly valued education. Her great-grandfather was a lawyer, one grandfather was an engineer, the other was a doctor, her grandmother earned her bachelor’s degree after her children were grown and her father was an engineer as well.  

She moved to Arizona in 1981 after getting married. The next year she started her education at Arizona State University as an engineering student, but as she continued her studies, another degree caught her eye. 

During her time as a student, Hussain raised four children, juggled motherhood and grandmotherhood, volunteered at her children’s schools and ran an educational nonprofit she co-founded 20 years ago called the Islamic Speakers Bureau of Arizona, which provides education about Islam and Muslims to build interfaith dialogue. 

Hussain is graduating this semester with a degree in religious studies and a certificate in Islamic studies. We caught up with her and asked her about her time here at ASU. 

Question: What was your “aha” moment, when you realized you wanted to study the field you majored in? (Might be while you were at ASU or earlier.)

Answer: I started out working on getting an engineering degree as I love math and physics. My “aha” moment came when I was 37 years old. I was sitting in an introductory level class for C programming with freshmen. Although I was keeping up with homework and doing well in the class, each session was difficult for me because the other students had a stronger background in coding than I did. It felt like class discussions were led by an advanced group of students who already had a background in C. I then realized that I had come to a stage in my life where I wanted my degree to be in a subject that would enhance knowledge as it relates to my career, rather than just a subject I enjoy. I changed to religious studies as I educate about religions.   

Q: What’s something you learned while at ASU — in the classroom or otherwise — that surprised you or changed your perspective?

A: During one of my classes, I read about an anthropologist who was observing native people and their rites and rituals around funerals. While questioning them, he was surprised at their process. When asked about how his people bury their dead, back home in the West, his description shocked and horrified the native people. This made me realize how we, as people, do things as tradition or follow religious practices without understanding or appreciating how outsiders may view them. This made the work I do with my nonprofit even more necessary.

Q: Why did you choose ASU?

A: I chose ASU because it is the university closest to me, but I stayed with ASU because of two amazing student advisers who have helped me navigate and stay on top of my degree through the decades.

Q: Which professor taught you the most important lesson while at ASU?

A: Professor Agnes Kefeli Clay showed me how to approach and navigate the academic study of religion.

Q: What’s the best piece of advice you’d give to those still in school?

A: Never give up on your dream. Each setback is only a failure if you don't try again.  

Q: What was your favorite spot on campus, whether for studying, meeting friends or just thinking about life?

A: Since 1982 my favorite spot on campus has always been the Memorial Union. Even though it looks and feels very different to what it used to be, it is still the place where we can meet, eat, chat and attend events.

Q: What are your plans after graduation?

A: Hopefully I get accepted in a master’s program and continue studying.

Q: If someone gave you $40 million to solve one problem on our planet, what would you tackle?

A: It would be nice to say "medical research" or "save the planet" but others are already spending billions. I would keep it close to home like Robert F. Smith did for the 2019 graduates of Morehouse College. I would help pay off student loans, allowing those children and families here in our community to live the lives they dreamed of after getting their degrees. This way, instead of spending all that they earn to pay off loans they will be able to provide homes, food, clothing and health care for their families.