Dr. Abeer Mustafa grew up sheltered and close to her Saudi Arabian-Indian parents, but she didn’t tell them she had joined the U.S. Army until the night before she shipped out in 1990.
The family, minus her father, who stayed behind with the U.S. consulate in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, moved to Houston when Mustafa was 7. She was the middle child among five brothers, no sisters.
Her Saudi mother, Nafisa Hakim, spent that night crying after hearing about the Army enlistment. Her father, India-born Syed Irfan Ali, worked for the U.S. State Department and immediately got on the horn to Washington, D.C., in a futile effort to rescind his daughter’s military appointment.
When her Army recruiter warned her she would be AWOL if she didn’t make basic training in South Carolina, Mustafa said he’d have to come get her.
“My mom’s crying. She thinks no one’s going to marry me now because I’m going to join the Army. For her, everything’s about marriage. I literally didn’t sleep that night. So the recruiter came to my house and he wound up staying for three hours while my dad was on the phone with Washington trying to get me out of it.”
The recruiter reminded Mustafa’s father that she was 18 and, legally, the decision-maker. Dad didn’t care.
“He’s like, ‘In your world, she’s an adult, but in this house, I’m still her father.’ But I wound up leaving and my dad’s like, ‘This is not over. I’ll come get you in basic training.’ And every day I thought someone’s going to pull up at the gates and take me home,” Mustafa said.
From Fort Jackson in South Carolina, Mustafa went to Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio and then joined her unit as a front-line medic with 91 Bravo Company, part of the 536th Brigade Support Battalion with the Texas National Guard in Galveston. She served four years and reached the rank of E-4.
She never saw combat but used her training as a first responder following Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. She credits the Army with shaping the woman she has become.
“So once you get in, it teaches you so much,” she said. “They took this puddle of mud and really shaped me in my values, the strengths that they gave me to believe in myself. I went in as this mud and I came out as this defined sculpture that they made me into and strengthened the values of who I am today. I think it was the best experience of my life.”
Mustafa became UTC associate vice chancellor for enrollment management and student affairs in July 2018, overseeing Housing and Residence Life. Her work history includes similar stints at Chico (California) State University (2016-18), North Carolina State University (2014-16), Winston-Salem State University (2012-14), the University of Houston (2009-12) and Rice University (2003-09) in Houston.
At UTC, she runs the Campus Life unit and oversees 72 full-time staff and 200 paraprofessionals with a total budget of $24 million. On Nov. 10, Mustafa will keynote the UTC Veterans Day Chancellors Luncheon from 11:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. in the University Center’s Tennessee Room.
Earlier this year, Mustafa was selected for a UT System President’s Award in the “Excel in All We Do” category to honor individuals who commit to continuous improvement and outstanding performance.
Mustafa’s family moved to Houston in late 1978 from Jeddah, on the Red Sea. Because of her parents’ “mixed marriage (Saudi and Indian),” Mustafa could not attend Arab school beyond the elementary grades. The family emigrated to America because Mustafa’s late mother “didn’t want to raise her kids as second-class citizens.” After years of taking English as a Second Language classes (she arrived in America speaking Arabic, Hindu and French), she graduated from Klein Forest High School in Houston and immediately joined the Army.
Using the GI Bill, she earned a bachelor’s degree in business administration from the University of Houston in 2007, an MBA in 2011 from Sam Houston State University and a doctorate in organizational leadership from Oakland City University in Indiana in 2021. Along the way, she trained and volunteered at the local Army recruiting station. A high school soccer player, Mustafa said the Army’s physical training was a “breeze” and that she excelled at shooting an M-16 rifle.
“She is amazing,” said Haley Sebastian, who graduated from UTC in December 2021 and was president of the Student Veterans Organization, of which Mustafa was the adviser. “She is definitely a champion for veterans. She’s all about helping people, doesn’t matter if they’re veterans or not but especially veterans.
“She has the personality that just lights up a room and would give you the shirt off her back or coffee machine from her office, which she did,” said Sebastian, a former Marine Corps drill instructor who served three combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan and now is an environmental supervisor at the Tennessee State Veterans Home in Cleveland, Tennessee.
Dr. Valerie Rutledge, dean of UTC’s College of Health, Education and Professional Studies, chaired the search committee that hired Mustafa in 2018 and said she goes out of her way to recognize other veterans and to find places for veteran students—usually older adults—in quiet areas for them to study.
“She has brought a brand-new perspective and all sorts of ideas that have been important in our resident life programs,” Rutledge said. “She comes from a family of all brothers and saw herself as someone who had the opportunity to give something back. She’s very self-disciplined, which is very good for those in the military. Abeer is proud, proud, proud to be a veteran. She’s been a fabulous addition to that part of our campus.”
Mustafa and her husband, Shamael, a Truist Bank executive in Chattanooga, have twin 15-year-old boys, Imaad and Adeem. The couple met in Houston after Mustafa’s mother announced at a cousin’s wedding that she had an unattached “beautiful daughter, if anyone’s interested.”
“I swear to God, I wished the Earth would open up and swallow me. Most times we have arranged marriages, and at that time I was 31, which is unheard of in my culture,” she said.
Mustafa laughs when recalling how her five brothers, ranging from 6 feet tall to 6-foot-6, hazed her 5-foot-5 husband before the marriage.
“I didn’t want to marry a traditional guy from my culture,” she said.
Mustafa, working on her Veterans Day luncheon speech, said she will never forget the Army’s creed.
“If you look at the creed, it says, ‘I am a team member. I’m committed to the mission. I will never quit. I’m disciplined. I’m an expert. I’m a professional,’” Mustafa said. “All these transfer into any position that you’re doing. So if they take this and train you as a soldier with this mindset, they’re setting you up for future success.
“So it’s mind over matter. I mean, anything that you want to do or I want to do, I’m going to do it because that’s how they molded my mind.”