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Meet the Grad: Meelod Waheed, from NOVA to NASA and Beyond

Meet the Grad: Subin Kim, Army Reservist and Jack Kent Cooke Semifinalist

Every student at NOVA brings a different story, and a different perspective on student success and achievement. Commencement brings to life their accomplishments.

Jack Kent Cooke semifinalist, and graduating NOVA Nighthawk, Meelod Waheed talks about the importance of reaching out and recognizing yourself for your victories. Waheed is a rising future engineer with a focus on machine learning and artificial intelligence (AI) who previously interned at NASA and Oak Ridge National Laboratory. He wants to continue his path in technology while also focusing on doing good and helping his local communities in Northeast Philadelphia and Northern Virginia.

Tell us a little bit about yourself and your background:

I come from a family of refugees and am the youngest of three. My parents and relatives fled their home in the war-torn state of Afghanistan after the Taliban invaded Kabul in 1996; eventually finding themselves in New York and, later, Philadelphia where I was born and raised. Years later, we found ourselves moving to Northern Virginia where I currently live.

What brought you to NOVA?

Growing up, our financial situation wasn’t always the best—my father was the sole breadwinner of our family and my mother stayed at home taking care of three kids. I knew paying for tuition at a 4-year university would be tough, and that only became more difficult after my father passed in 2018. My mom since took up a job working retail for two years, until she lost her job when the COVID-19 pandemic hit in 2020—the same year I was graduating from high school and waiting to hear back from the colleges I applied to.

The financial aid packages for every school I was admitted to were hard to afford, and I couldn’t bring myself to take out any loans. So I sought other options, eventually finding myself at the doorsteps of NOVA.

What are you studying or plan to study at NOVA?

This semester, I’m graduating with an A.S. Computer Science degree. I’ve always been interested in technology, and I found myself loving to make basic games with code in high school; but going to NOVA helped solidify that studying Computer Science was the right choice. Just this last semester, I was interning at NASA as a Software Engineer, developing simulation models for aeronautics and I wrapped up an internship at Oak Ridge National Laboratory developing a program to study chemical kinetics after NASA.

After NOVA, I plan to continue studying Computer Science—particularly in the machine learning and artificial intelligence subfields. It’s something I grew fond of after taking Computer Science and Math classes at NOVA, where I started researching machine learning methods and presented that at the Spring 2021 Honors Symposium.

Tell Us About Your Experience at NOVA; ie, professors you’ve liked and friends you’ve met 😊

I’m the president of five clubs and organizations at NOVA: Phi Theta Kappa (PTK) at Woodbridge, Manassas Honors Club, STEAM Club, Cloud Computing Club and Personal Finance Club. While it may seem like I have no life, I truly loved the community I helped foster with each organization, and it made my time at NOVA huddling in front of Zoom meetings much more enjoyable.

Everyone at NOVA has been an absolute joy to know and work with, notably Dr. Sam Hill (Woodbridge Campus Provost), Professor Westerhoff (Math Professor), Professor Dupal (English Professor) and Professor Kastens (PTK Advisor). I would have never thought that my professors would eventually turn into my mentors who have helped guide me during my two years at NOVA.

I’ve been very fortunate to receive scholarships to help pay for my tuition at NOVA. A big part of my last semester here is to make sure I give back to those that gave to me, so Professor Kastens and I launched a campaign to donate $10,000 to the NOVA Educational Foundation on behalf of our PTK chapter to endow a scholarship under Professor Bausch, a former NOVA professor who passed away years ago.

What would you tell a student coming to NOVA?

Come into NOVA with a fresh mindset; be open to talking to people who you’d typically never speak to. You’d be surprised with how the conversations pan out. There are so many people with many unique experiences here at NOVA, and I’ve learned so much from all of them, such as a former professional dancer, parents, veterans and a former juvenile offender. I’m a firm believer that we can always learn a thing or two from the people we talk to, and I learned that from those interactions I had at NOVA.

Where do you see yourself after NOVA or what career pursuits are you exploring?

I see myself in the AI industry as an engineer tackling two issues: rising food insecurities and the student loan crisis in America.

Starting last year, I’ve worked with The Farmlink Project to help alleviate food waste. What we do is take perfectly edible foods that farmers would normally throw out—and by the way, farmers throw out billions of pounds of food annually—and we deliver them to food banks for people who need them. To me, access to food is a right that society fails to recognize, and I want to leverage my machine learning background to continue tackling that issue more efficiently.

I’m also very interested in having my own startup in the FinTech industry. We all know that student loans continue to be a growing issue nowadays, and that’s something I would love to help people navigate and tackle.

How do you feel about being a JCKF semifinalist?

I am just very happy to be a semifinalist. It’s important to recognize the small steps in my journey. I have to sit back and realize that this is so cool, but I know that there are bigger things waiting for me that I want to accomplish.

I would say to my fellow Nighthawks to not be afraid to communicate and to be personal. If you have questions or concerns, don’t be afraid to reach out, especially to NOVA alums who are always happy to talk to you.

Northern Virginia Community College (NOVA) is the largest public institution of higher learning in the Commonwealth of Virginia and one of America's largest community colleges. NOVA enrolls nearly 80,000 students at its six campuses in Alexandria, Annandale, Loudoun, Manassas, Springfield (Medical Education Campus) and Woodbridge, through NOVA Online and high school dual enrollment. We offer more than 100 associate degree and certificate programs to help our students reach their academic and professional goals through university transfers and access to the most in-demand careers. At NOVA, we strive to ensure that every student succeeds, every program achieves and every community prospers. For more information about NOVA and its programs or services, visit our website, www.nvcc.eduor call 703.323.3000.