By Jonah Grinkewitz

Zobair Wali’s parents have always encouraged their children — four daughters and two sons — to pursue learning.

But living in Afghanistan, where it has historically been difficult for women to access education, that was a challenge.

“The biggest reason we moved here is education,” Wali said of his family’s decision to immigrate to the U.S. in 2017.

After settling in Yorktown, he completed his senior year of high school and started applying to colleges – every one in Virginia to be exact. He chose Old Dominion University after being offered a merit-based scholarship and because it was close to family.

When he got to the University in 2019, Wali  started out as a computer science major. But after receiving the S-STEM Scholarship and realizing the increasing demand for cybersecurity professionals in the field, he switched to cybersecurity.

Wali said coming to ODU played an important role in making him feel welcome in a new country.

“Seeing how diverse it is, finding these different small communities within this big community of students, it really helped me to learn a lot about others,” he said.

During his junior year, he discovered the Cyber LeADERS program which provides two to three years of support to students in exchange for service in the federal government for the same number of years.

He received his bachelor’s degree in cybersecurity in 2023 and in May, he will walk across the stage at Kornblau Field in S.B. Ballard Stadium to receive his master’s in cybersecurity as well.

“As a member of the first cohort of the Cyber LeADERS Program, Zobair has stood out from the beginning as someone who is a great ambassador for ODU and this program,” said John Costanzo, chief administrative officer for the School of Cybersecurity.

The Cyber LeADERS program, which is funded by the National Science Foundation's CyberCorps® Scholarship for Service (SFS) initiative, includes a full in-state tuition scholarship, an annual stipend ranging from $27,000 for undergraduates to $37,000 for graduate students and a professional development allowance.

“My master’s would not have been possible without this scholarship,” Wali said. “And now it is my turn to pay that back.”

Wali has several offers for employment and is currently evaluating his options. Wherever he lands, he hopes to be able to commit time to teaching others, a passion that connects to his experience as president of the Coastal Virginia Cybersecurity Student Association and executive director for Virginia Cybersecurity Students, a statewide group he helped found.

Serving as president for those groups “taught me leadership, management, planning, communication skills and how to work with different minds,” Wali said.

“This group, Virginia Cybersecurity Students, is just getting established, but it would not have happened without Zobair’s drive and passion for connecting with students and cybersecurity professionals,” Costanzo said.

While at ODU, he also worked part-time for the Information Technology Services department and later as a cybersecurity analyst for the Virginia Department of Human Resources. He said both of those experiences taught him how to interact in a professional setting and put him in a better position to get a job after college.

Outside of school and work, Wali is a big soccer fan, loves to swim and travels every chance he gets.

“Coming here from Afghanistan, my parents are not big fans of traveling, but it helps me gain perspective,” he said. “I always tell myself this is an exploring phase and maybe I’ll find somewhere that I’ll just love to be.”

For now, that place is still Virginia. And seven years after coming to the U.S., he is grateful to see his siblings continue their educational journeys as well. One of his older sisters graduated from the University of Virginia, another is going to Christopher Newport University and the rest of his siblings are in high school. 

“I don’t know if I am an exception, but I have had a great experience living here, and I have gratitude to people welcoming me and giving me an opportunity,” Wali said.