Sarah Bhutta was born in Nishtar Medical Hospital in Multan, Pakistan, exactly two years, seven months, and 17 days after Afzaal Akhtar. Their paths would not cross for two decades.
In 1983, at the age of 18, Bhutta stepped off a plane and into the United States. She was more than 7,000 miles from home. Although she was not unlike other international students, her parents were very cautious. They insisted she be in Pittsburgh, a city where she could live, at least temporarily, with her uncle. Her parents had one more demand: She should attend a college for women. Carlow College met both criteria, so that was her destination. "I was always very close to my parents," Bhutta says. "I didn't want to disappoint them."
Less than two miles away, Akhtar, still unknown to Bhutta, was a student at Carnegie Mellon.
After a few semesters, Bhutta realized that her college choice didn't offer her the kind of classes she wanted. "The math and science classes that I would have really liked were not available," she says. Her father, a renowned chemical engineer in Pakistan, was hopeful that she would major in math or science, so he empathized with his daughter's frustration. He supported her transfer to Carnegie Mellon's College of Science.
Akhtar and Bhutta were finally in the same place at the same time. As a transfer student, majoring in chemistry, Bhutta was finding it difficult to get involved in campus life. Ever trying to help their daughter, her parents learned that a friend's son was studying mechanical engineering at Carnegie Mellon. Bhutta's first meeting with Akhtar was an arranged dinner with family friends. Bhutta enjoyed the home-cooked meal but didn't give the evening any added significance.
A few weeks later, the chemistry major's phone rang. It was the mechanical engineer. "The first thing I asked him was how he got my number," she laughs. "He told me the engineering department had a six-on-six volleyball team and they needed a third female player."
Bhutta wasn't so sure about his excuse for calling. "I thought that sounded suspicious. I thought, ‘You couldn't find any other female in all of engineering?'" Yet Akhtar was insistent. She agreed to play.
Akhtar's engineering friends soon became her friends. "I ended up hanging out a lot in Hamerschlag Hall, deep in the bowels of the building." Bhutta recalls, mentioning favorite areas of the engineering building as if they were her old friends: the metallurgy laboratory, the robotics displays, and more. "I also ended up spending more time with the graduate students than with the undergraduates."
Bhutta's friendships started to span across majors and grade levels—aspiring architects, chemists, language majors. Bhutta even picked up a second major outside the College of Science—German. She welcomed the mix, even though it seemed, to her, to run counter to a more regimented college experience for her undergraduate classmates.
One of those friendships turned into something more. Not long after Bhutta's graduation, in the spring of 1989, she and Akhtar (E'84, '86) were married. Now, years later, the couple is settled in central New Jersey and has two children. Akhtar is a senior partner of Interactive Broadband Consulting Group, where he focuses on developing major clients and overseeing the company's worldwide operations.
When the couple found time to visit the university recently, they found many of their old haunts, but they also perceived a different atmosphere on the Pittsburgh campus—a more integrated, eclectic feeling in and out of the classroom. Bhutta's experience from her undergraduate days seemed to be the norm, not the exception.
"There's such a big change in the attitude and the focus of the university now," she says. During her campus visit, she happened to speak with several students participating in the SURG (Small Undergraduate Research Grant) program. The presentations impressed her, but so did the fact that the grants existed at all. "I don't think it's very common at universities in general for undergrads to have an option to apply for and get $500 or $1,000 for their research projects," Bhutta says
With such a heartening perspective on Carnegie Mellon, a supportive gift seemed only natural. "We had been planning [to donate], but we didn't know exactly how we'd go about it, and Afzaal said, ‘Why don't we do it in your dad's name?'" recalls Bhutta.
Her father had passed away in 1996, and she welcomed the chance to honor her father's memory. And, just as her father encouraged her, Bhutta wanted to encourage women to practice a math- and science-related field, in particular the field that her father had built his career on. As a result, one part of her family's $250,000 donation will fund a fellowship for a female major in chemical engineering. In addition, Bhutta and Akhtar have added support for the SURG program, which impressed them so much during their visit.
This fall, 27 years after Bhutta traveled to the United States to enter college, her son will enroll in college, too. Both Bhutta and Akhtar suggested he apply to Carnegie Mellon, but teenagers being teenagers, he wasn't all that interested in following family tradition and chose a college in California instead. Bhutta's dad might have insisted otherwise, but these are different times. Bhutta and Akhtar decided to let him go where he wants.
Michelle Bova (HS'07) is a freelance writer and has been a regular contributor to this magazine since her senior year.