Mother-daughter team at UNC coordinate to further mom's education

mlocke@newsobserver.comMay 11, 2013 

  • Getting it done

    Here’s what a typical Friday looked like for Salma and Marriam Azam during the fall semester of 2012:

    • 4 a.m.: Marriam wakes and begins to study.

    • 6:45 a.m.: Salma is out the door to class at UNC. Two morning classes.

    • 11 a.m.: Marriam drives to Chapel Hill with her preschooler, Samrah, in the car. Marriam picks Salma up from class and drives to her car. Marriam then drives to class at WakeTech to make her lunchtime physics class.

    • 12 p.m. Marriam takes class. Salma feeds sister Samrah and gets her to preschool.

    • 1 p.m. After dropping off her sister, Salma returns to UNC to do lab research in the biology department.

    • 3 p.m.: Marriam heads home in time to greet other children and prepare for the nightly meal and homework.

    • 5 p.m. Salma heads to her part-time job at a tutoring company in Chapel Hill. She then tackles some of her own studying before returning home.

    • 8:30 p.m.: Marriam and Naweed start putting the younger children to bed.

— When Salma Azam graduates from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill on Sunday, her degree holds a delicate promise abided by a woman and her mother.

In Salma’s senior year in high school, she felt the weight of her mother’s long-delayed dream of going to college. So daughter Salma, 21, and mother Marriam, 40, made a pact: They would tackle UNC together. The two grabbed a dry-erase board and started to make a schedule.

The simple promise brought a relentless grind of courses, commutes between Cary and Chapel Hill and the demands of tending to Marriam’s five younger children.

For the last three years, the daughter and mother have managed a delicate dance, arranging the courses they needed around pick-up and drop-off times for the younger children, who range from 4 to 13. The Azams’ schedules were so rigid that a herd of students slow to cross Franklin Street would put one of them in danger of being late to class.

Last week, they both sunk into a sofa at their home in Cary, exhausted and giddy from final exams. They laughed like schoolgirls as they remembered near misses.

“Clearly no one else had any idea what we had going on,” Marriam said. “Were we crazy? Probably.”

In truth, the last three years were driven by a kind of insanity inspired by the love and sacrifices mothers and daughters often share.

Salma Azam owned her mother’s dream for a college degree as if it were her own. She pressed her mother hard to study for each class. When Marriam had a test, Salma felt butterflies as if it were her own exam.

“Her success was really important to me,” Salma said. “Mommy never had any downtime. She gave it all to us. It was her turn.”

College, interrupted

Marriam Azam’s family valued education. In her Ahmadiyya Muslim community in London, women were as educated as men. She always intended to go to college.

When she married a family friend, Naweed Azam, at age 18, Marriam started squaring away plans to enroll in college in America, where her husband’s family lived. The University of North Carolina-Greensboro accepted her. A few weeks before she was to begin classes, she got pregnant with Salma and suffered horrendous morning sickness.

She put her plans for college on hold and settled into the role of mother.

“Salma was my life,” Marriam said.

For years, the push and pulls of family duties thwarted her chances to go to college. A brief stint taking correspondence classes in 1997 was interrupted by a death in the family. When Marriam enrolled again in 2000, she learned she was pregnant with her son, Taseer. The nine years that followed brought four more babies to tend.

“That’s what God brought to us, and we embraced it,” Marriam said.

Still, a hunger for college lingered for Marriam. As Salma advanced at Panther Creek High, pushing herself in advanced placement classes, Marriam picked up nearly every book her daughter read. Her mind felt awake, and she knew there was so much more she wanted to do with her life. She’d always wanted to work in health care, perhaps researching genetic disorders such as the one that disabled her only sibling.

“I knew that at some stage, my wonderful children would move away. I’d miss them, and I’d want something for me,” Marriam Azam said.

‘This incredible team’

By spring of her senior year in high school, Salma Azam had committed to go to UNC. She had secured a full scholarship and had enough advanced placement courses to start diving into the science courses she hoped would shape her career.

When her mother floated the idea of returning to school, Salma’s response was simple and supportive: “Let’s do this.”

“Their bond is basically unbreakable,” said Naweed Azam, Marriam’s husband and Salma’s father. “It has such deep roots that developed so early in her life when Marriam spent so much time helping her develop. It’s what carried them through this.”

At the start of each semester, Salma and Marriam would lean over a white board, drawing grids to account for each hour of every day. Marriam scanned course offerings they each needed and started plugging them into the grid; for several semesters, Marriam tried to take care of some math requirements at Wake Tech Community College while working on her general education classes at UNC.

They tag-teamed care and pick-up of the younger children, with Naweed offering help some nights and on the weekends to free Salma and Marriam for studies. When they started, baby Samrah was still in diapers.

The schedule had little wiggle room.

Marriam would wake at 4 a.m., logging a few hours of studying before her younger children rose for school. Salma would leave by 6:45 to catch an 8 a.m. class. Marriam packed lunches and would start preparing dinner before loading baby Samrah in the car and heading to Chapel Hill for class. Salma would then hop in her mother’s car with her little sister and pass along her car keys to her mother. A friendly parking attendant came to know their juggling act and would help direct them during tight exchanges.

All the while, few at UNC-Chapel Hill knew of each woman’s load.

When biology professor Gidi Shemer encountered Marriam Azam one night as she entered an anatomy class, he was glad to meet the mother of one of his top students. When he learned that they shared child care so they both could go to college, Shemer was overwhelmed by the love and devotion he knew it must be demanding.

“They were this incredible team,” Shemer said. “To think of what Salma was achieving in her course work and when you do that, and introduce (challenges of) life, it’s just extraordinary.”

A new kind of class

Salma Azam is graduating in three years and has earned highest honors in the school’s competitive biology program. Only about 10 of the 600 biology graduates achieved that distinction, Shemer said.

Salma is humble and quiet about her accomplishments, but Marriam gushes on her behalf. Marriam is youthful at 40, with a sing-song British accent and eyes that glisten when she talks about all she’s learning. Salma smiles sweetly when her mother talks and quiets her little sister with a gentle stroke on her leg.

Their delicate dance will continue until Marriam earns her degree. Since she’s kept her load between two or three classes each semester and didn’t have the jump-start her daughter did on credits, she is years away from a degree. Right now, she’s trying to settle on whether to pursue pharmacy or nursing.

Salma Azam secured a spot in graduate school at UNC’s Biological and Biomedical Sciences program, where she plans to earn a doctorate and launch a career researching diseases such as cancer.

This summer, Salma and Marriam are taking a break from courses and will tackle another kind of education. This time, Salma will become her mother’s student, learning the skills Marriam perfected during her 18-year wait to go to college.

Marriam will teach Salma how to cook.

Locke: 919-829-8927

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