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From Welfare to Ph.D. 

Hirah Mir has won many academic awards on campus.  

ALBANY, N.Y. (May 17, 2018) – When Hirah Mir is hooded at Sunday’s doctoral commencement, it will be after many years of advocating for herself and others.

Mir, who has lived in Albany for the past six years, was born in Pakistan and raised in Brooklyn. Her story is being filmed on campus as part of a documentary on the Welfare Rights Initiative (WRI) called American Nightmare / American Dream. It tells the story of Mir and two other women who were able to pursue higher education as a way out of poverty.

There was never a question in Mir’s own mind that she was going to college. She earned a bachelor's degree from Hunter College, a master's degree in Educational Psychology and Methodology from UAlbany, and is graduating with a Ph.D. in the same area. She was accepted into the doctoral program straight from undergraduate school, and has worked full-time for the New York State Office for People with Developmental Disabilities since January 2017.

Her passion has always been advocacy.

“That is why I pursued a doctoral degree in the first place – to build the skills necessary to do good, sustainable and evidence-based advocacy work in human services. I was working for WRI, doing public policy and college-readiness work and I wanted to be better and more impactful. The Ed Psych degree and doctoral experience allowed me to develop the skills and understanding necessary to continue to pursue my purpose,” Mir said.

Today the list of Mir’s achievements is as long as your arm: President’s Award for Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching by Teaching Assistants; President’s Award for Leadership in Governance; President of the Educational Psychology and Methodology Recognized Graduate Student Organization; Vice President of the UAlbany Graduate Student Association, and member of the Future Faculty Leadership Council at the Institute for Teaching Learning and Academic Leadership, to name a few.

To say she worked hard to get to where she is today is an understatement. She overcame challenges that would have been insurmountable for most.

Mir moved to Sydney, Australia, from Pakistan when she was 3. Her family of five moved to the United States in 1995, and she started kindergarten. Her family went through a drastic change as they adjusted to a new country. When Mir was in sixth grade, her parents separated. She and her mother and siblings lived in a homeless shelter for several months.

“It was actually a really nice place because it was for women and children,” she said in an interview with the Welfare Rights Initiative Oral History Project. The shelter helped her mother apply for public assistance and disability assistance and the family later received a voucher for Section 8 housing and found an apartment in Brooklyn.

While Mir went to a high school with many opportunities no one talked about how to apply for financial aid and how to navigate the requirement for providing tax forms when you are receiving public assistance.

“I ended up not filling out the FAFSA because I was too ashamed,” Mir said.

It wasn’t until she graduated high school and turned 18 that she started getting all these letters saying she had to go to work or lose her public assistance.

“I just didn’t think at all that someone or the system can prevent you from going to college, because that’s the ideal. That’s what they tell you from kindergarten,” Mir said.

In New York City, Mir could receive Temporary Assistance for Needy Families through the Human Resources Administration but she had to work 35 hours a week under Bill Clinton’s Welfare to Work program.

Luckily, Mir found an internship with the Welfare Rights Initiative for 22 hours a week, an experience that allowed her to stay enrolled at Hunter College, a four-year public school that is part of the state City University of New York system. WRI taught her how to overcome the obstacles of public assistance rules so she could complete her education.

Each caseworker told her something different.

She was told that she could not go to a four-year school and be on public assistance, she was told she had to cut her internship hours and work more and that her choices were to either work in transit or for the sanitation department.

“And I knew that I had been trained by WRI. I knew that’s illegal. The work study internship law says that if you have an internship, work study or externship, that can count as the 35 hours,” she told the WRI Oral History Project.

She worried that if she complained or made a mistake, she could jeopardize her entire family’s benefits. Her parents eventually got back together.

Mir said misconceptions abound about what people receiving public assistance can or cannot do, and for-profit colleges prey on low-income students at high school career fairs.

She continues to work in human/social service to help implement inclusive and equitable public policy for marginalized New Yorkers.

“My social class and economic struggles, although very much a part of my life, are not the only thing that pushed me to pursue a Ph.D. It was my commitment to advocacy. I am no longer ‘poor,’ but I am still an advocate (and have been through my doctoral teaching, doctoral research, and current position in state government),” she said.

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