Remembering Aliza Akhtar (1999–2019)
Members of the MIT community reflect on their memories of Akhtar
Aliza Akhtar ’22 died in a car accident in Old Bridge, New Jersey on May 25, President L. Rafael Reif wrote in an email to the MIT community May 28. Old Bridge was Akhtar’s hometown.
Akhtar majored in Course 6-3 (Computer Science and Engineering) and lived in McCormick Hall.
Akhtar loved Pakistan and was active in Paks@MIT, a Pakistani students’ group, Layal Barakat ’22, her close friend, wrote in an email to The Tech. Akhtar did much of the planning for Rawaj, the group’s cultural event in April. “It was nonstop planning on her end for multiple weeks, her and two other great friends. And it truly paid off,” Barakat wrote.
Akhtar served as publicity chair in the Muslim Students Association (MSA) and was very dedicated to her role, Barakat wrote. “She meticulously drafted every email, contacted everyone that needed to be,” Barakat continued.
Akhtar was also involved in Women in EECS, Mock Trial, Palestine@MIT, and Mobin, an Islamic students’ group, Reif wrote.
Akhtar did research in the Personal Robots group in the Media Lab, Barakat wrote. In her UROP, she helped make Jupyter notebooks to teach AI to high school students, Reif wrote.
“Aliza was truly the embodiment of a strong, independent woman. She juggled all of her work with no complaint, she got everything done with flying colors. Every. Single. Time.” Barakat wrote. “And Aliza always pushed us to strive to become strong, independent women too. With her gorgeous smile. With her wild laughter. With her hugs (she always had the best hugs).”
“Sometimes you just meet those people that are literally angels, who are too good for this world. Aliza was that person,” Barakat wrote.
Haniya Shareef ’22, another friend of Akhtar’s, also shared with The Tech Akhtar’s love for others. “Her room … was everyone’s sanctuary. If you had a bad week or a bad day, Aliza would hear you complain, give great advice, and provide you with a never ending supply of mango juice, ice cream, love, and really good hugs,” Shareef wrote in an email to The Tech.
Shareef continued, “Family was also incredibly important to her. Sometimes we would make plans and Aliza would say, ‘Wait, I’m going to talk to my mom really quick.’ That’s when you knew you wouldn’t be leaving for another hour. I used to be so annoyed by this but now I know that it is just that Aliza knew what was truly valuable and important in life when a lot of us honestly didn’t.”
“Although Aliza is no longer with us, that doesn’t mean her story is over. Because every day I saw her touch so many lives and so many souls, and her story now is part of ours," Samar Abu Hegly ’22, Akhtar's friend, wrote in an email to The Tech. “For me, she was my family at MIT while being across the world from my home. For me, she proved if you have the right people around, you can achieve anything!” Abu Hegly wrote.
Abu Hegly and Shareef requested that those who have been touched by Akhtar’s story donate to a charity on her behalf, as part of the Islamic concept of Sadaqah Jariyah, “charity that continues to give long after one’s death.” They have compiled a list of preferred charities, which includes Girls Who Code, Famine in Yemen, and the Council on American-Islamic Relations. The complete list can be accessed at https://tinyurl.com/AlizasCharities.
Akhtar taught math, English, robotics, and physics with Global Teaching Labs (GTL) Mexico over IAP and had been planning to work on autonomous vehicles with the MIT International Science and Technology Initiatives (MISTI) Spain this summer, Meghana Vemulapalli ’22, her GTL partner and friend, said in an interview with The Tech.
In Mexico, Akhtar formed friendships with many people she met. She loved dancing, and both learned Mexican dancing and shared Pakistani dancing with Vemulapalli and her new friends. She once made 80 servings of her family’s Pakistani recipe for ice cream with her friends, Vemulapalli said.
Throughout GTL, Akhtar kept a mental checklist of about 30 people for whom she was going to bring back gifts, including her family, high school friends, and MIT friends, and she wanted to get each person a gift special for them, Vemulapalli said. “She thought a lot about the people who mattered to her,” she continued.
“I’m incredibly lucky and grateful that I got to know her [over those] three weeks,” Vemulapalli said. Back on campus, talking to Akhtar would “turn into an hour, two hours, of just talking and relaxing together,” even when they were both busy.
“She was a beautiful human and a true friend. She poured so much love and care into the world,” Vemulapalli said.
Diego Colin ’22, who was a friend of Akhtar’s and also a member of Mock Trial, remembers a tournament at Rutgers University in New Jersey at which Akhtar suggested taking a bus to New York City to go bowling before the first day.
“So we’re all talking about how to pull this off for like 30 minutes. I’m scared to go, but Aliza and Emily [another friend in Mock Trial] are super excited about it. Anyway, before we know it, we all fall asleep, and nothing ends up happening. I wake up the next morning, disappointed and confused about when I fell asleep. Looking back on it, I wish I wouldn’t have fallen asleep and gone on an adventure with Aliza and Emily,” Colin wrote in an email to The Tech.
On her 2.00B (Toy Product Design) team, Akhtar was “truly such a hard worker” and stayed with her teammates “to support and cheer” them on, even after her own work was complete, Lauren Platt ’22, Akhtar’s teammate, texted to The Tech. “She refused to leave anyone behind alone. She was always willing to help in whatever ways she could,” Platt continued.
“No matter what, she always had a smile on her face and was laughing and spreading joy to everyone around her. Even in our final PLAYsentation, she insisted that we throw in a million jokes and funny bits because she just wanted to entertain and make people happy,” Platt wrote. “And it is obvious how much she was loved. When she got on stage during our PLAYsentation, the crowd erupted with cheers and people were so excited to see her.”
“I wish I could explain what it felt like to be loved by her. To be around her. She wasn't just anybody, she was Aliza Akhtar, desi queen, master programmer, MSA exec member, always down to have a good time, the greatest and purest person ever,” Barakat wrote.
Members of the MIT community can access MIT student support resources and Mental Health Services at resources.mit.edu/support, or via phone at 617-253-2916 during the day and at 617-253-4481 during nights and weekends.
Update 6/11/19: The article was updated to include two photos of Akhtar.
Update 6/12/19: The article was updated to correct the URL for MIT resources.