The American Dream

This story is by Lakhpreet Kaur, founder and editor-and-chief of Kaur Life.

“One of my dreams is to get an American higher education.”

Qahtan Mustafa is an Iraqi refugee who, when immigrating to the United States in 2009, realized that his bachelor’s degree from Baghdad University was not recognized in the United States.

So, Qahtan went hunting for a way to earn an American degree. But, he came away feeling that it was going to be a very difficult, if not impossible, endeavor. “I never found the resources that were suitable for me,” he said.

Each time Qahtan looked into an educational program, he was discouraged. “Because I have family, I have full time job, it doesn’t make sense to leave my full time job to go to school. The financial side was also scary for me. How am I going to pay the bills?” Similarly, navigating the new educational system was daunting for Qahtan since the Iraqi and American education systems are very different.

That was until 2015, when he discovered PelotonU.

Working as a resettlement program supervisor at the Refugee Services of Texas (RST), his manager suggested he attend a PelotonU open house to see if the program might be valuable for his clients. “In the first 30 minutes, I knew it would benefit me very well.”

Qahtan signed up with PelotonU that day.

After completing provisional enrollment, he started his Associate’s degree in January of 2016. Qahtan’s immigration and pioneering story is remarkable in itself, but what makes his American journey even more incredible is the speed at which he completed his degree. What usually takes students two years to complete, he finished in three months, earning his associate’s degree in April of 2016.

PelotonU is a non-profit organization providing working students affordable, flexible, work-at-your own pace programs to earn university degrees. In addition to academic and financial guidance, PelotonU also offers college coaching. Qahtan said that the PelotonU staff was warm and welcoming andcredits Sarah, his College Completion Advisor, with a lot of his success.

“We had weekly meetings…we go through my tasks, my plan, and any difficulties completing my school work,” Qahtan said.“ She was very open for any questions. Whenever I stopped, PelotonU was the one coming and pushing me.”

For instance, by the third week of classes, Qahtan wanted to quit after facing some setbacks. He met with Sarah and explained, “‘I don’t think I can do it.’ Sarah said, ‘No, you can do it.’ She facilitated everything and helped me push through. She was there when I needed the help.”

Also part of Qahtan’s cheerleading squad were his co-workers at RST and his family. His immigration sponsor, an American soldier whom he worked with in Iraq, was also very supportive.

But, Qahtan could not have completed his degree so quickly without his love for learning and his unparalleled drive to achieve. After seven years of believing his dream of an American education would never come to fruition, he was not going to let the opportunity slip away when finally given the chance. “I set my goal and this is it now,” he said.

After his eight hours at work, he spends three hours studying at the PelotonU office. He then heads home to eat dinner with his wife and two kids. Before bed, he puts in another three to four hours of studying. After five to six hours of sleeps, he wakes up, takes his kids to school, and studies a little more before work.

On the weekends, he plays soccer, spends some time with his family, and does another ten hours of school. To make this schedule work and to realize his educational dreams, Qahtan said he had to cut out TV and reduce sleep and family time.

Leen, his wife, has played a huge role in Qahtan’s success, “She was super happy. She was very supportive and took on more responsibilities for me to go to school.”

All of Qahtan’s hard work started paying off before he even finished his degree. He noted his communication, computer, and writing skills improved, and he was able to apply what he learned in his public administration classes at work. After his manager saw Qahtan’s improved confidence and professional development, Qahtan was quickly promoted.

Qahtan did not waste any time after earning his associate’s degree. He has already started working towards a BA in Management and Public Administration.

While Qahtan is unsure of what his dream job would be, he knows he is working towards a bright future. “Education is the key. This is going to open a lot of doors for me in the future. For now, I am focused on my degree, and after that we’ll see what’s going to happen. I am already getting the benefits from studying. I don’t know what the future holds. But I feel I am more secure about the future.”

Qahtan believes in PelotonU so much that his wife, Leen, plans to attend in the future. His message to other people thinking about enrolling: “It’s worth it. It’s definitely worth it.”