What resources would best help new immigrants to this country? University Settlement spends $52 million annually to assist 40,000 newcomers to New York. CFAO Rabiya Akhtar ’99 helps decide how.
As a young girl growing up in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, Rabiya Akhtar ’99 wanted to be just like her businessman father, a Pakistan-born Chief Financial Officer. “You hear the story of little girls trying on their mom’s heels. For me, it was trying on my father’s shoes and carrying around his briefcase,” recalls Akhtar. “It was always my goal to follow in his footsteps.”
And indeed she has. As Chief Financial and Adminstrative Officer of New York’s University Settlement, a nonprofit that since 1886 has offered social services and educational programs to the city’s new immigrants, Akhtar oversees the organization’s finance department, IT and business operations, and facilities, a role that keeps her busy “every single day, every minute of the day,” she says with a laugh. But it’s a position that has particular meaning to her, being an immigrant herself. Like her parents, who as young adults left Pakistan for London then settled in Riyadh, she left her home in Saudi Arabia after completing ninth grade at the city’s American International School. (Her sister Areeje (Akhtar) Oriol ’04 would later follow her to Williston.)
“It was a huge change,” Akhtar recalls. “And now that I have an almost 14-year-old myself, I think back in wonder how my parents could have let me go.” The biggest shock was going from a bustling international city to a small New England town, she says, but she adjusted quickly and soon had found a lasting community of friends—and met her future husband. “I tell my kids all the time that the friends that I made at Williston and the connections with the teachers is, quite honestly, beyond anything in college or my work life,” she says.
The opportunity to help other new immigrants was a key factor in her decision to join University Settlement in 2021, after a 15-year career working in retail banking, in auditing, and as an accountant for a hedge fund. “Being an immigrant myself, I feel a lot of immigrants come to this country and are not familiar with the resources that are available to them,” she explains. “So just getting that message out and being able to provide that support is essential.” With a $52 million budget funded primarily by government grants, University Settlement today has 700 employees who annually serve some 40,000 New Yorkers, primarily Asian and Spanish-speaking residents, offering programs in early childhood education, mental health and wellness, benefits assistance, literacy, and other community services on the Lower East Side and in Brooklyn. One recent area of focus, Akhtar notes, has been offering assistance to the city’s influx of asylum seekers.
At Williston, Akhtar had her first introduction to volunteer work, an experience that “played a huge part in me wanting to give back to the community,” she says. She witnessed examples of leadership that have continued to guide her, in particular her interests in building community and empowering others. “Being able to translate that into a career was just huge and so meaningful to me,” she notes. “To actually see the direct impact of the work that I was doing.”
But when her time at Williston was drawing to an end, Akhtar was more focused on a career in business. She had narrowed her college choices to Rutgers or Babson College when her counselor, Richard Hazelton, offered another suggestion. At the time, she and her Williston boyfriend Jason Magnus ’99 had broken up, and he was going to Columbia University. “Mr. Hazelton suggested that maybe I keep in mind being closer to New York in the event that Jason and I may want to get back together,” she recalls. “I decided to go to Manhattan College, and Jason and I are now married. I don’t know how he saw into the future, but he made it work for us.”
Now with two daughters, ages 14 and 11, Akhtar has in turn become the parent her kids want to emulate. “My daughter wants to go to Williston,” she says. “If it were up to her, she’d probably be there. We said we would think about it for maybe junior and senior year. I’m not ready to let her go!”
Learn more about the work of University Settlement at universitysettlement.org.
Williston memory: “We joke about me playing thirds field hockey as a junior at Williston. You would think that as someone from Pakistan, I should have been at least somewhat good at it. I ended up doing dance as my alternative.”