This week, thousands of students are moving onto the next chapter of their lives after turning their tassels at the University of New Mexico graduation on Saturday. One graduate, in particular, didn’t let extra challenges hold him back from a brighter future.

“I’m really happy to graduate finally, get my diploma,” said Abdullah Shah.

Like most new grads at UNM, Abdullah Shah is excited about the future. In this case, that includes becoming a dentist, a venture inspired by his grandmother.

“My grandmother, she was diagnosed with blepharospasm where her eyelids shut on her. What’s interesting is that it’s actually an eye condition, by wearing this mouthpiece that applies pressure to a nerve in her mouth, it actually causes her eyelids to open up. I was just interested and fascinated like how in the world does something in your mouth affect what happens to your eyes,” said Shah. “There’s so much more in the overall health of a human person that can really be affected just by the health of your mouth.”

A longtime local, he says the career path is also a way to give back to the New Mexico community.
“New Mexico is medically underserved, so I really want to give back to my community in any way that I can,” said Shah.

He’s taking on his future earlier than most, graduating with a Bachelor of Science in Population Health in just three years. He says the opportunity in high school to attend Rio Rancho Cyber Academy, Santa Fe Community College and UNM West, simultaneously, helped him achieve an associate degree at the age of 16 and make this early graduation from UNM possible, along with the help of his mother.

“With that, I was able to complete my associate at the same time I completed my high school diploma,” said Shah.

It’s a long list of academic achievements that one doctor told him wouldn’t be possible.

“When I was a child, there was a pediatric audiologist who mentioned I should be held back a few years because they kind of implied I wouldn’t be able to succeed academically,” said Shah.

He was born with hearing loss.

“There were times I was bullied because of my hard of hearing, being hard of hearing. There were times I was bullied because I may have become a little antisocial. I wasn’t able to do group conversations very well,” said Shah. “A majority of my teachers have been wonderful, but there’s been a few teachers that were like, ‘Because of your hard of hearing, you shouldn’t pursue this field, you shouldn’t pursue that field. Dentistry, they work with very loud instruments, you can probably never become a dentist.'”

Despite those bullies and few teachers who focused on the negatives, he’s choosing to overcome that challenge and stick with the positives and his abilities.

“I have hope that through this story, I’ve been able to change your minds. I know, unfortunately, some people like to stay with the same mind and thought process, but I sure hope this is one of the many stories that will hopefully change people’s opinions,” said Shah. “I don’t consider being hard of hearing a disability. I guess I could give it a new term, like differently-abled or something like that.”

He’s also thankful for the professors and faculty at UNM for helping along the way.

“The teachers here have been extremely helpful. I know I did go through the Accommodations Department, and they had several devices and microphones and speakers, etc. I really try to avoid using them when I could because I wanted to be in the same environment as all my peers in class,” said Shah. “I know beforehand I would email my instructors and tell them, ‘Oh, I’m hard of hearing. Would it be okay if I got a seat in the front?’ But the teachers are very, very accommodating. They would tell me, ‘Oh yes, you can come to the front. Do you want me to bring a mic? Do you want me to come close to you during a lecture? Please let me know if you need me to send anything extra.'”

As Shah walked across the stage and receives his diploma, he hopes fellow students will not let any obstacles hold them back. “You have to try your best to get to the end of that tunnel. You have to make sure that your story is what you want to make it,” said Shah.

Shah was nominated by his fellow students to serve the keynote speech at the Population Health convocation on Friday before attending his graduation ceremony on Saturday.

Since UNM does not have a dental school, he is now heading off to the dentistry program at Creighton University in Omaha where he will study for another four years. He says he plans to return to New Mexico and practice dentistry as soon as he is done with school.