Sitting in the still, sunny courtyard of Tower Hill private school in Delaware, Zara Ali talks about her favorite city in the world: Mumbai.
“I love going to the city and seeing so many different types of people,” she said. “It’s like sensory overload.”
India's commercial capital Mumbai -- crowded, dynamic, colorful -- is 13,324 kilometers and cultures away from Wilmington, Delaware -- a historic American town with fewer than 100,000 people. This month, among rolling hills and lush gardens, Ali graduated from the small private school of 700 students.
“Sometimes it’s difficult to feel like you have a global outlook” when ensconced in the leafy Brandywine region of the mid-Atlantic U.S. But her teachers and friends at Tower Hill “have a very global outlook,” said the 17-year-old.
This global outlook is something she will carry to the University of Virginia in Charlottesville this fall, where she will study public policy, economics and philosophy on a full scholarship. When she’s done with that, Ali says, she hopes to go to law school and pursue immigration law, like her attorney mother.
Ali sees the world broadly because her family roots are wide, she said.
Her mother is Indian Hindu. Her father, Pakistani Muslim, who works for JP Morgan Chase. Those two cultures have not been traditional allies because of religious, political and territorial disputes.
“You couldn’t find two families that were more different and put them together,” Ali said.
“And in some weird way it all just kind of blended together and worked out. And I think in that sense, it’s always just kind of showed me that even if you think two people are so diametrically opposed from each other, we all have these commonalities and similarities.”
She visits Mumbai frequently to see her mother’s family, as well as manage a non-profit she started with her sister at the age of 12.
The non-profit Zumantra buys and sells handmade goods such as jewelry, scarves, and bags from women in Mumbai and Karachi, giving them money to send their children to school. Her organization has turned $250 of seed money into roughly $25,000 in sales. But Ali is modest about this accomplishment.
“I don’t really talk much about this non-profit just in terms of my daily interactions because I guess I’m not looking for people to give me a pat on the back for it,” she said.
Ali has also worked with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) as well as the state of Delaware’s Department of Justice.
“I helped prosecutors with their cases, combing for evidence, listened to prison calls, making summaries for the prosecutors for their cases and I saw a different side to it very different from what TV shows show,” Ali said.
But for now, Ali is focused on her move to Virginia this fall, where she will study on a prestigious merit scholarship, the Jefferson scholarship, which provides for tuition, fees, room and board, and even a travel stipend.
“I graduated last Friday. It’s kind of crazy I don’t know why I just never really thought the day would come for some reason it seemed very slow and then suddenly the last four years just happened so fast,” she said.
“But I will be going to Virginia in a few months to the University of Virginia. ... I’m really excited about that.”