Filza Ali

Filza Ali, Oakton Alum ’17
Filza Ali ’17
Oakton alum Filza Ali loves learning and understanding systems. She applies her pre-med biology degree from Loyola University to a career in biotechnology with the company Tempus, where she is an operations analyst. With her signature blend of tenacity and open-heartedness, Filza has carved a remarkable pathway for first-generation and immigrant college students everywhere.

Discovering that a career path isn’t always set in stone
Filza began her education at Oakton with a single focus: becoming a doctor. She finished her general education requirements and transferred to Loyola University, where she graduated summa cum laude and excelled on the pre-med track. But a gap year experience at Tempus opened her eyes to the many powerful contributions she can make in medicine outside of direct patient care.

“In undergrad, I had this very rosy picture of ‘we’re going to go and change the world.’ But then I started to understand that the world rapidly changes. Changing my trajectory took a lot of time, a lot of processing and reflecting. Being a doctor was something I wanted to do since I was a kid—and changing my career path had a lot of grief attached to it for me. I wanted to invest myself into a career where I do have an impact for patients. That’s always been in my heart and soul, and I always thought I had to do that by having a stethoscope around my neck.

Oakton alum standing in front of workplace sign at Tempus.What caught my attention at Tempus is the new introduction of precision health and artificial intelligence...and how we can use that to better patient outcomes. That’s the key. The direction I’m trying to carve out for my own path is to be a middle person between clinical oncology and downstream data. I want a bigger picture of the entire pipeline: where our data starts, and where it’s going. Instead of being a doctor and treating people day-to-day, I’m helping to understand how cancer manifests, how we can better treat it. Though I’m not serving patients directly, they’re at the forefront of that process.”

Turning disappointment into determination
Filza spent two years at Oakton, where she got involved in student organizations such as Phi Theta Kappa and the Muslim Student Association. She was part of TRIO, a student success initiative for first-generation students, and took a challenging course load to prepare for her transfer to a four-year program. “I had a phenomenal experience in community college,” Filza says. But she didn’t always picture herself as a community college student.

“The beginnings of the journey were really bitter for me, in terms of what propelled me to pursue community college. My [undocumented] status really made that decision for me; I didn’t get college funding out of high school to pursue a four-year university. I was extremely disappointed. In high school I was a go-getter—top-of-class—so I thought it just had to work out. I was thinking of Oakton as parting ways with all my friends who were going to go on and have a normal college experience. But later, a lot of my friends who went to four-years right away told me that I made a great decision. And I did. Community college gave me the armor I needed to be successful at a four-year university. There was so much pressure those first years; so many decisions. And I realized that just because I’m going to a two-year, doesn't mean I can’t have friends or that I can’t be successful in student organizations. It was also the strongest I’ve ever been in my faith—when I was at Oakton. I think of that time as when I was in the Muslim Student Association and we started a prayer room on campus. It helped me really understand that there are bigger things out there than my worries. It allowed me to get all the social anxiety out of my system. And for people who think community college is easy: It’s not easy. I was so challenged at Oakton.

When I was a high school student, I had initially applied for the Magis Scholarship [a full-ride scholarship for undocumented students] at Loyola University Chicago, but I didn’t get it. After two years at Oakton, I applied again and I got the Magis Scholarship and I did go to Loyola. Your journey is written for you, but you have to be courageous enough to believe it and allow it to take you where you’re meant to go.”

Tenacity, courage—and hope
Filza strives to broaden and elevate the narratives of undocumented people. She lobbies the federal government for policy change, and serves in mentorship and advocacy roles in the Undocumented Jesuit Network, of the Ignatian Solidarity Network.

“The number one thing that anybody should have, and a lot of undocumented students do have, is tenacity. Being tenacious is the recipe for success in any world. No matter who you are, whether you have the status of citizen or not, there will be people who tell you ‘no.’ There will be people who tell you it’s not possible. I faced that in high school; I faced that at Oakton; I faced that at Loyola; I faced that everywhere. And those no’s are not criticisms. There are people in these roles as advisors, faculty, and staff, and their professional experience is inspiring their advice. I respect people who give me advice, and then I respectfully decline to follow options that won’t bring me closer to the goals I am working towards.

For me, tenacity has allowed me to say: ‘I appreciate the advice, but I know what else I need to do, and I will find a way to make it happen.’ That has been ingrained in me. It takes a lot of courage to do that. There are a lot of people who can give me advice, but no one can actually give you an answer because being undocumented or DACAmented is a really big middle ground. They haven’t lived your life, they aren’t sure of your circumstances, and there are a lot of blockers and barriers you’re up against. My experience has always been having to find my own answers. People and institutions that invest resources into supporting marginalized populations should be held up to their own standards—they should always be growing and pushing. We should continue to invest in students and do better.”

While enrolled at Oakton, Filza received the Dream Scholarship from the Oakton College Educational Foundation. She was honored by Oakton as a Distinguished Alum in 2023.