Princeton alumna and Microsoft software engineer Zoya Shoaib ’20, a “kind, loving soul” and vibrant member of campus life, died on Saturday, Dec. 26 after a battle with neuroendocrine cancer. She was 22.
A Residential College Advisor (RCA) at Whitman College, an active member of the campus Muslim community, and a graduate with an A.B. degree in computer science, Shoaib is remembered by friends, family, and mentors as a kind and studious person who cared deeply for loved ones in her life.
Will Stocovaz ’22, a member of Shoaib’s group of first-year advisees, expressed his admiration for Shoaib’s character.
“She struck me immediately as someone who was super kind and super conscientious. [She had] an amazing work ethic and was amazingly committed to not only things that directly impacted her and people she was responsible [for] but really the friends and community around her,” Stocovaz said. “She always went above and beyond to really do the right thing, and that’s not something that everybody does.”
In a Facebook post in memory of Shoaib, Nazifa Chowdhury ’20, Shoaib’s close friend and former roommate who first met Shoaib at Princeton Preview in April of 2016, wrote that Shoaib was “inherently nurturing.”
“In every situation, she was the ‘mom-friend,’ taking care of her two brothers, her zees, and her younger friends at Princeton,” Chowdhury wrote. “I used to joke with her, saying that she surrounds herself with babies (even if her friends were only a year or two younger than us).”
Shoaib was born in Pakistan on Aug. 24, 1998 to parents Shoaib Ismail and Khalida Shoaib. Sister to two younger brothers, Shoaib was among a family of first-generation Pakistani immigrants who moved to Mechanicsburg, Pa. in 2011. She graduated from Cumberland Valley High School in Mechanicsburg in 2016 and began her studies at Princeton that fall.
A lover of penguins, sad music, and Bollywood movies, who always claimed she was funnier in Urdu than in English, Shoaib lived all four of her years at the University in Whitman College. She was a member of the Whitman College Council and served as a RCA in both her junior and senior years. Shoaib was also a SHARE Peer and part of the Scholars Institute Fellows Program (SIFP).
According to Chowdhury, Shoaib’s health struggles began as early as the summer after her first year at the University, and she was diagnosed with neuroendocrine cancer after graduation. But even amid her own struggles, Shoaib is remembered as a compassionate person who cared for others.
“She [gave] so much of herself. She always prioritized other people above herself, even as she was going through all those health struggles,” Imam Sohaib Sultan, the Muslim Life Coordinator and Chaplain in the Muslim Life Program, remarked. “She was one of those people who really, really just cared about people.”
Computer Science Lecturer Alan Kaplan, who advised Shoaib on her senior thesis titled “Kadam: Increasing Access to Prenatal Care in Developing Regions,” recalled that Shoaib was “extremely diligent, extremely well-organized, and she always came prepared.”
“She was very driven, very smart, but she was also very easy to talk with, besides just the research,” Kaplan said.
Shoaib’s senior thesis centered on the development of Kadam, an “offline, low cost, and deployable conversational chatbot” which can help pregnant women obtain information about pregnancy that they cannot otherwise receive without internet access. She named Kadam after the Arabic word for “foot,” taken from an Islamic Hadith in which the Prophet Muhammad said, “Your heaven lies under the feet of your mother."
Shoaib also served as coordinator for the Undergraduate Computer Science Council, a group of COS concentrators who aim to represent the interests of undergraduate students in the department.
Colleen Kenny, Undergraduate Program Manager in the Department of Computer Science, who worked with Shoaib on the COS Council, spoke about Shoaib’s devotion to the betterment of the department for other students.
“What I've learned about Zoya is her overall enthusiasm for Princeton and for the computer science department, and she just wanted to impart that enthusiasm to all the computer science students,” Kenny said. “She wanted to also be a good person and reach out to those other computer science concentrators and take the time and engage them and have them appreciate the department as much as she did.”
According to Kenny, Shoaib was active in the computer science department, working as a lab TA, attending academic advising events to answer questions brought forth by incoming first-year students interested in computer science, and participating in the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing.
Shoaib produced a short video for the cohort of computer science graduates on 2020 Class Day, in which she expressed her gratitude for the mutual support between classmates throughout their four years together.
“From the late-night debugging sessions at [Friend Center] to the numerous projects and late meals, thank you for being an integral part of an amazing experience,” Shoaib said in the video. “Thank you for creating an environment that allowed me to grow as a person and an engineer.”
In her senior thesis acknowledgements, Shoaib wrote, “As someone who had not coded before coming to college and is now graduating as a software engineer, I could not be prouder to be a part of the COS family.”
Due to the COVID-19 restrictions, most of Shoaib’s family members were unable to see her even as she battled through her illness; her mother was only able to see her in person after insistence. The rest of Shoaib’s loved ones did not see her until she entered hospice in her final days.
Chowdhury remarked on Shoaib’s resilience in her final months, noting that she continued to work from her hospital bed even as her health condition worsened and that she participated in a game night with her Microsoft colleagues even during the severest episodes of her battle with cancer in December.
“She was so positive; she was just talking about possible treatment outcomes,” Chowdhury said. “The whole point of her struggling with pain and health issues for three years and still being able to be a student and [be] a friend is really powerful.”
Shoaib is survived by her father, mother, and two younger brothers, Raied and Zain.