Hussain Ahmad Mohammad, MEng ’23

How an Afghan Grad Student Made It to the Hill

After a Fulbright fell through, Hussain Ahmad Mohammad, MEng ’23, got a helping hand from Big Red faculty

This story was adapted from a feature on the Bowers CIS website.

By Patricia Waldron

In 2021, Hussain Ahmad Mohammad, MEng ’23, thought a Fulbright scholarship was his ticket to advance both his career and his country. At the time, he was a semifinalist with plans to study systems and networking at a U.S. university, then return to Afghanistan to improve Internet access in rural areas.

But when the U.S. military pulled out in August 2021, the Taliban returned to power and diplomatic relations between the countries ended. For Mohammad and about 100 other semifinalists, that ticket to the U.S. evaporated.

With support from the Bowers College of Computing and Information Science—and a lot of hard work and persistence—Mohammad realized the first part of his plan, completing his master’s of engineering in computer science on the Hill.

“Cornell was a dream school for me,” he says. “Never in my dreams would I have thought that I’ll make it to Cornell.”

Cornell was a dream school for me.

In fall 2024, he’ll pursue a doctorate at the University of Chicago, where he hopes to tackle complex problems in the area of systems and networking—and perhaps one day improve Internet connectivity for users everywhere.

Jalalabad, Afghanistan, is where Mohammad’s family calls home—but due to political unrest in his country, they moved to Peshawar, just across the border in Pakistan, before Mohammad was born.

His father worked as a trader in Peshawar, which allowed Mohammad to attend good schools. When his family moved back to Afghanistan in 2002, Mohammad stayed behind, visiting only for holidays and summer vacations.

Hussain Ahmad Mohammad, M.Eng, ’23, is seen in a school photo, second row, far left
Mohammad (middle row, left) in a school photo.

As a child, Mohammad’s first experience of the wider world was through the Internet.

In Pakistan in 2005, Internet access was expensive and limited.

But as long as he took turns with family members and promised not to use all the bandwidth, he could get help with homework, play games with friends, and explore life beyond his local community.

“I could see the whole world,” Mohammad says. “It was like I had everything on my laptop.”

Mohammad wanted to do his undergraduate degree work in the U.S., but received a scholarship to the Institute of Management Sciences in Peshawar, where he majored in computer science.

To continue his studies, he applied for a Fulbright. The program funds international recipients to pursue graduate degrees at U.S. institutions before returning to their home countries.

I could see the whole world. It was like I had everything on my laptop.

When the program in Afghanistan ended suddenly, Mohammad and about 100 other semifinalists took to Twitter (now X). The L.A. Times ran a story on their plight, describing Mohammad’s desire to study computer science at Cornell.

That’s when the administration at Bowers reached out to see what they could do to help.

It became clear that Bowers couldn’t revive his scholarship, but they could scrape together some funding. Computer science professor Nate Foster ultimately agreed to take him on as a master of engineering student.

Hussain Ahmad Mohammed (center) with Kavita Bala, dean of the Cornell Ann S. Bowers College of Computing and Information Science (left), and Nate Foster, professor of computer science (right) at Cornell’s 2023 Commencement
At Commencement ’23 with Foster (right) and Bowers College Dean Kavita Bala.

The first semester was challenging, Mohammad says. He had a heavy courseload with rigorous classes that were not in his first language. He was also starting his research, auditing additional classes, and learning how to navigate the University—all while getting settled in a new place.

“He was just incredibly persistent and resilient,” Foster says. “Cornell is not an easy place, especially when you’re just figuring out the system.”

For the research component of his degree, Mohammad worked on programmable networks—a type of network in which the flow of information and the behavior of network devices are controlled by software that operates independently of network hardware.

He was just incredibly persistent and resilient.

Prof. Nate Foster

He developed a system that will allow network operators to add rules to a programmable switch so that it acts like a firewall. The system filters out malicious packets of information, such as malware sent from an insecure website that could take down a network.

Mohammad received a grant for a third semester and graduated in spring 2023. His family could not attend, but saw him walk across the stage on the livestream.

“That’s the power of the Internet—they could watch my graduation ceremony live from Peshawar,” he says. “It was like they were there.”

Top: Photo by Rachel Philipson. Other images provided.

Published June 20, 2024

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