Emerging into Leadership Hamza Zia '26 is using his leadership skills to make a global impact.
“It is a great honor to work with incredible, inquisitive and innovative students like Hamza and to help mentor them as they explore their passions and future goals.”
~ Elizabeth Knapp, director of the Johnson Program
After a single conversation with Hamza Zia ’26, it is easy to see why the sophomore was selected as Emerging Leader of the Year at the 2022 Leadership Excellence Awards, held annually to recognize student achievement and leadership development. Since Zia’s arrival on campus, he has taken on leadership roles across campus that reflect his passions and values, all while balancing his academic goals.
Zia, an engineering major from Rawalpindi, Pakistan, is a Johnson Scholar, a Bonner Scholar and a resident advisor. He serves as the secretary for W&L’s Southeast Asian Student Association, which hosts regular cultural events, including the campus’s annual Diwali and Holi celebrations. He is also treasurer for the university’s new cultural dance company, which hosts regular workshops to teach international dance styles to anyone on campus interested in learning.
Zia has particularly enjoyed learning classical Indian dance from two other students on campus with formal training, describing himself as a “talented amateur” who has benefited greatly from the experience. He serves as the community outreach and social media coordinator for Gentech, a student organization founded in 2020 to connect students with opportunities to learn coding and other tech industry skills, and as an ambassador for the Office of Inclusion and Engagement.
Additionally, Zia has worked closely with the Center for International Education (CIE). During the 2022-2023 academic year, he served as CIE’s Winter Term programming coordinator, which allowed him to create a robust schedule of on-campus programming and community-building activities during a time when many international students were unable to travel home to see their families.
“We offered trivia, movie nights, opportunities for everyone to gather for dinner—every other day there was something students could attend,” Zia said, adding the experience has been the highlight of his CIE involvement.
Hunter Swanson, associate director of CIE, said Zia’s efforts to build community during what might otherwise be a lonely time for many students on campus are important to recognize.
“Hamza seems to be everywhere,” Swanson said, “taking many opportunities to help promote a sense of community on the W&L campus.”
Zia’s commitment to community engagement led him to seek ways to empower marginalized communities in his native Pakistan. Last summer, he obtained support in the form of a CIE Summer Grant and Johnson Enhancement funding to embark on his work with the PINK Center Project, an organization dedicated to supporting and advocating for the country’s transgender community.
Zia describes the organization’s current iteration as a “trans-led social enterprise model working towards the economic empowerment of the transgender community,” which he co-founded with another activist working in Pakistan. Zia’s summer funding from W&L offered him the opportunity to travel around Pakistan, conducting training sessions for individuals interested in learning more about entrepreneurship, marketing and other skills critical to sustainable business models that offer financial independence.
“The organization was founded two years ago, but the funding is what has truly allowed us to go into the field and do everything that we were able to accomplish this summer,” Zia said. “In just two and a half months, this funding has enabled us to do so much.”
Over the summer, Zia represented the PINK Center at two pitch competitions for startups and businesses. The organization was the first startup to win the top prize at a pitch competition called Rising Stars of Pakistan, which is sponsored by the U.S. embassy. Zia then represented the center at the Prime Minister National Innovation Award competition, where the organization secured second place and additional grant funding.
“Hamza assisted more than 30 people with securing micro capital grants from the National Rural Support Program of Pakistan, and mentored several transgender individuals who are now working at companies like Shell and Unilever,” said PINK Center co-founder Saro Iman, “not to mention the over 100 individuals who attended the workshops Hamza led about business management and small-scale social entrepreneurship. Instead of enjoying his summer with his family, he fully committed himself to helping the marginalized transgender community of Pakistan.”
The organization is now also registered in the United States, and Hamza looks forward to reconnecting with his PINK Center colleagues during this year’s winter break to continue the organization’s work and strategize its next moves. Elizabeth Knapp, director of the Johnson Program, said that supporting students like Hamza in pursuing their passions is what makes her work with the Johnson Program so rewarding.
“Particularly inspiring are students with as wide a range of interests as Hamza—an engineering/STEM major who is also so passionate about social advocacy, working with and empowering marginalized communities in Pakistan,” said Knapp. “It is a great honor to work with incredible, inquisitive and innovative students like Hamza and to help mentor them as they explore their passions and future goals.”
As a Bonner Scholar, Zia must complete 1800 service hours over his four years at W&L, and much of his work creating and mobilizing PINK Center initiatives will count towards this requirement. However, Zia has also extended his love of community engagement into the local landscape, volunteering twice a week at Yellow Brick Road childcare center.
Fran Elrod, associate director of the Shepherd Program, said one of the goals of the Bonner Program is to have students’ service hours overlap with projects of importance to them and allow them space to work more deeply on those projects over time.
“Hamza’s path has been to find a way to contribute to the communities he calls home,” Elrod said. “While he’s in Lexington, he has a role to play in our local community, but he is also demonstrating a commitment to his own country and issues that are of grave importance to him there.”