Ayesha Akhtar

I am a public health advocate. I live and breathe preventative health.


Who are you?

I am a public health advocate. I live and breathe preventative health. I have my Masters in Public Health (from the University of Illinois at Chicago) with a focus on culturally sensitive approaches to healthcare. Currently, I work as an Education Coordinator with the Epilepsy Foundation of Greater Chicago. Because I have a particular interest in breaking cultural barriers, I am also a Master Trainer in Diversity & Cross Cultural Awareness. I am a graduate of Loyola University Chicago, where I earned my B.B.A. in accounting and worked in the Big 4 for five years.

In 2009, along with a friend I co-founded HEART Women & Girls, a nonprofit organization dedicated to empowering young women and girls to become leaders of wellness. I have over 10 years of experience as a health educator in a variety of settings and am passionate about educating communities with health information to individuals live empowered and informed lives.

Outside of work, I’ve been married for 15 years to my husband Omar and we have two boys, age 9 and 11. I am an avid runner (check out my blog), love to cook healthy meals (I like to call myself a flexitarian) and enjoy traveling and reading (check out my Goodreads bookshelves!).  I’m currently working with an amazing international nonprofit organization dedicated to ending maternal mortality to be a running ambassador my community, starting in 2014. I can’t share details now, but stay tuned if you are interested and how you can get involved!


Give us your favorite quote and tell us why it means so much to you:

“Running is many things to me: survival, calmness, euphoria, solitude. It is proof of my corporeal existence, my ability to control my movement through space if not time, and the obedience, however temporary, of my body to my will. As I run I displace air, and things come and go around me, and the path moves like a filmstrip beneath my feet.” – The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger

I love this quote because it captures the essence of what I enjoy about I running, which is also a wonderful metaphor for life: you get out of it whatever you put into it. I love to think that when I’m outside running I’m creating footprints that are only known to me. Running is very liberating to me, I enjoy running alone, with friends, with music, without music, each situation brings me peace.

The Islamic Perspective

I am often asked why I don’t cover my hair. I look for other ways to demonstrate my Muslim identity which to me is about my character with others, my relationship with myself & my family, neighbors and my community. I am very confident as a Muslim American woman of Pakistani descent.

What Ayah of the Quran do you hold close to your heart? Why?
“And hold fast by the rope (covenant) of Allah all together and be not disunited”….(Surah Al-Imran, Ch 3 Ayat 103). I remember learning this ayah in junior high school and finding it to be so beautiful at a time when I was FINALLY meeting Muslims of other cultures, after having been raised in a predominantly Indo-Pak (mostly Pakistani) community. It also helped me find my place in the world as an ambassador of Islam and made the concept of sisterhood and brotherhood much more valuable and real. We are all in this world together, different tribes, languages, cultures, beliefs, approaches to Islam, yet we must all hold strong to Allah.

What Hadith do you wish more non-Muslims knew about? Why?
My favorite hadith has always been about controlling anger: Strength is not measured by the one who overpowers, but by the anger you control. The Muslim world likes to dominate and it is the biggest turn off. So much about leadership is what is left unsaid, but is demonstrated through positive action. Not having the need have the last word is a liberating way to live.

The “Ten”:

1. What is your favorite book?
The Alchemist, Paulo Coehlo. I read it in one sitting and it drove me to change my career from accounting to public health.

2. Who inspires/inspired you?
My parents. My mother is a strong, silent leader and a great listener. And my father inspires me because he embodies hard work and determination. He never quits.

3. What is the best lesson your mother/mother figure taught you?
“Create your own path; no one else will do it for you”, said my mother to me when I was at my lowest point in the midst of grad school, raising a family and complaining about my nonexistent job search.

4. What advice would you give your 13 year old self?
Good question! At 13 I moved to a new school (and again at age 16), it was really hard for me to adjust to a new school, new friends, and a new culture. I tried really hard to fit in and I wanted to make friends fast! I was a confident person but I wish I didn’t second-guess myself as much as I did, trying to fit in with the new crowd. I’ve learned to trust my instinct and not second-guess myself; ultimately, that is disingenuous.

5. What are your hopes for your daughter(s) and/or son(s)?
I have two sons, I hope for them to become great leaders and engaged citizens of the world. I pray for them to be God-conscious, earth-loving, peace-building, moderate Muslims who serve as role models to their families and communities. Whatever careers they choose is up to them, but they must do it with conviction and passion.

6. What is the biggest trial you went through in your life and how has that changed you?
When my two sons were 1 and 3 years old, my husband became very ill. Going through treatments with him for months, taking care of my sons, while attempting to create a normal life for the boys was very difficult. I had to be strong for my family, and like a mirror reflect positivity. We made it with a lot of prayer and support from family and friends. I learned it is okay to ask for help and it is nothing to be ashamed of at all. Women put too much pressure on themselves to be completely put together and in charge of everything. It is simply not possible.

7. Any regrets? What’s something that you wish you’d thought about more before you did it?
I wish I traveled more but no MAJOR regrets. I’ve tried almost everything I have wanted to experience at least once. There’s always time to try.

8. How do you stay grounded in your work and/or spiritually grounded?
It may sound silly but I run everything by my kids. New ideas, concepts, and thoughts Ishare with them and get their opinion. They’ll usually tell me if the idea is worth holding onto, or if I’m out of my league. I attempt to stay spiritually grounded by bringing all my work back to the idea that we have one life to life and our body is a gift from God. Treat it well, and that means emotionally, physically, mentally and of course spiritually.

9. How do you bring about real change?
Uninformed people usually don’t make noise for change. Change is prompted by education, being informed, knowing what else is out there. It comes from the ground up, when people are empowered, change is contagious and dynamic.

10. What do you hope to be remembered for?
I hope that people remember me as a woman who had a passion for life. Ayesha means ‘she who lived’, or ‘lively woman’. I hope people think of me as a lively person who had a passion for life. As one who loved the ocean and would always ‘rather be at the beach’. I hope people will remember be for my public health efforts and my love to educate and empower people with information. I hope to leave a dent on my friends, family and acquaintances in some way, shape or form such that people will think of me as an inspiration in their lives. If someone were to say, “Ayesha would do that / say that”, it would be awesome!

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More about Ayesha:

Ayesha’s Goodreads