Science and Technology

Breaking down barriers

First generation student finds success in computer science program

JMU CS Major, Zamua Nasrawt

SUMMARY: Zamua Nasrawt, a junior computer science major came to JMU as a first-generation college student with a remarkable backstory that informs his work ethic and compassion for students in similar situations.

By Brett Seekford

James Madison University brings students from many different backgrounds to Harrisonburg, Virginia, where they can interact with and learn from their peers to broaden their perspectives beyond their personal experiences. Few people would expect to encounter such diversity from a student who already lives in Harrisonburg. Zamua Nasrawt, a junior computer science major, lives in the city but came to JMU as a first-generation college student with a remarkable backstory that informs his work ethic and compassion for students in similar situations.

Nasrawt came with his family to the United States as a refugee when he was only a year old. His family fled the northern region of Iraq known as Kurdistan due to ethnic strife that saw dictator Saddam Hussein targeting Kurds. They later settled in Harrisonburg. While his parents never attended college, they hoped that life in America would offer educational opportunities for their son.

Nasrawt grew up in Harrisonburg City Schools, and it was in high school that he found his calling. “I was unsure of what I wanted to do in high school, but luckily Harrisonburg High School offered an introductory computer science class,” he explained. “I took the class on a whim, and I enjoyed it. It was fairly challenging, but it was enough to get me interested.”

As he prepared to graduate, he knew college was his best option for a successful career. “While my parents didn’t have a formal, American college education, they heavily emphasized the importance of education while I was growing up,” Nasrawt said. Upon looking into possible colleges, he found himself increasingly leaning toward his hometown university: JMU. 

In fact, his decision to apply to JMU led him to eschew all other options, opting for community college as a fallback if he did not get into his preferred college. Luckily, he did not have to pursue his back-up plan, as he soon found out he was accepted. After committing to JMU, Nasrawt declared computer science as his major.

He later won a Centennial Scholarship to fund his college education. The Centennial Scholars Program, which awards financial assistance to underrepresented and underprivileged students, offered substantial grants and academic support to Nasrawt based on his merits. This scholarship made it easier for him to attend the university.

Since his first year at JMU, Nasrawt has found great success. His status as a first-generation college student presented some challenges, but he successfully navigated these obstacles to make the most of the experience.

“I had to figure a lot of things out on my own since my parents didn’t go to college. Fortunately, I had a lot of resources to help me such as close friends, counselors, and various online resources,” he said.

His major also helped him find success at JMU. Through both his involvement in computer science classes and his communication with passionate faculty members, he now aspires to a career as a software engineer. Professor Mike Lam has been integral in advancing his interests. Taking courses with Lam in compilers and data structures, he became fascinated by compilers, and is now working on an honors thesis that explains the creation and design of his own programming language.

Nasrawt likewise made a lasting impression on Lam. Referencing Nasrawt’s advising of friends who are also first-generation college students along with his job as a teaching assistant, Lam said, “Zamua is a fantastic student who seems to excel at every endeavor he pursues. He is a pleasure to have in the classroom and he’s a great help to his fellow students from what I’ve seen.”

Nasrawt’s perseverance as a student, along with the bravery and encouragement of his parents, has placed him in a position to achieve his goals.

“I’ve gained numerous opportunities for both myself and my family while at JMU,” Nasrawt said. “My parents work retail and labor jobs and have really given up everything so that my siblings and I can go to college. I hope I can get a good job now, and my current and future family will benefit from my experience.”

Published: Monday, February 27, 2017

Last Updated: Monday, January 29, 2018

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