Gul Rukh Mehboob has ensured that a part of herself will remain on the University of Iowa campus after she leaves.
“I believe that wherever you go, you leave a part of yourself there,” says the PhD student studying health economics related to public health at Iowa on a Fulbright scholarship from Peshawar, Pakistan.
Mehboob’s watercolor painting of Old Capitol was selected to celebrate the university’s 175 years as an institution and to commemorate the installation of Barbara Wilson as UI’s 22nd president.
While Mehboob has only been on campus since the start of the fall 2021 semester, she says the university has already left its mark on her.
“After so many years and all the struggles and everything that I saw, I made it here,” Mehboob says. “I love the university and I have so many hopes for my future. All of that was in my mind, and I really wanted to convey my own experience with education and coming here, so I thought it would be a good opportunity to voice my feelings through this art piece.”
Mehboob’s concept for the piece was to illustrate the university’s rich history and transformation to a contemporary campus. The base of the work resembles a black-and-white photo of the Old Capitol to reflect the university’s long history with strategic color elements added in.
“I chose the golden dome because that represents hope,” Mehboob says. “And the autumn trees are colored to show inclusion—all the people who come here to study and the peace and prosperity and colors they take with them back to their homes and spread there. That was something that was in my mind and that I wanted to tell through my art.”
Mehboob says her parents are big believers in education as a catalyst for social change and their house was always filled with books. While she grew up loving art, her family encouraged her to go in a different direction. She received bachelor’s and master’s degrees in economics. After being diagnosed with an autoimmune disease and experiencing the health care system from a patient perspective, Mehboob developed an interest in health economics and decided to devote herself professionally to that field.
But she never abandoned her love of art.
“I kept on doing it as a hobby,” Mehboob says. “I see art as creativity of the soul and it became a good form of inner growth and expression for me. Sometimes a lot of things that you can’t speak about or you can’t express in words, you can do in an abstract form through art and it becomes a good source of catharsis.”
While she was a faculty member at a business school in Peshawar, Mehboob established an initiative called Arts, Creativity and Freedom, through which artists were invited to conduct workshops for the business students and faculty and were provided venues to exhibit art.
“I realized that people had really pushed off their art, whether it was performing arts, painting, or poetry,” Mehboob says. “We were not really in touch with that and I thought it would be a good tool to spread positivity and keep people sensitive about issues. The response was amazing.”
Mehboob also uses her art to help fund two volunteer projects dear to her heart that help education in Pakistan. All money she makes from selling her art—including the commission she received for the UI 175th anniversary artwork—goes to funding Ujala School initiative (which means “light of hope”) and Kitab Dost (Friends of Books).
Three Ujala Schools in Peshawar provide free education to children who are unable to attend due to financial problems or because they work during the day to help provide for their families. The students also receive free books, meals, and other items they and their families need. Kitab Dost has established nine libraries, reaching more than 4,000 children through books and reading sessions who otherwise may not be able to access quality content. Both of the initiatives were established under the umbrella of the Association for Business, Professional, and Agricultural Women, a non-governmental volunteer organization with which Mehboob is heavily involved.
As Pakistan begins to roll out a universal health coverage program, health care financing experts are needed. Mehboob was already working with the ministry on the effort, but says she needed to improve some of her skills so she could contribute even more to the effort.
“I wanted to go for my PhD because of my strong belief in education as a tool that really can be used to make a difference at various levels,” Mehboob says. “For me, it is also symbolic that yes, despite all the hurdles, you can still come out and go for it.”
Mehboob began applying for scholarships and earned a Fulbright—the second person in her family after her sister also studied in the United States on a Fulbright award.
As she started looking at where she wanted to study, Mehboob says she was impressed with Iowa’s College of Public Health—but something else stood out to her.
“The University of Iowa looked like a sort of mini world because it’s home to more than 130 nationalities and 2,800 international students,” Mehboob says. “That fascinated me and it said to me that they really welcome people from other countries. It felt like home before I even got here.”
Mehboob saw the call for artists for the 175th celebration near the end of her first semester at Iowa. She says it was perfect timing.
“When I came here, I was totally out of touch from my art because I was struggling to settle down and set up a home and learn the new system here and everything, so I missed my art,” Mehboob says. “When I’m away from my art, I feel that I’m just not in touch with myself, so I was craving for it.”
Erin Fitzgerald, art director and associate director of art and design in the Division of Student Life, wrote the call for artists and served on the selection committee. She says Mehboob’s application spoke to her given her recent arrival from Pakistan, her excitement to pursue her PhD, and how welcomed she felt by the Iowa community. Mehboob’s application also noted that she was not a trained artist, but that she had a deep passion for creating art and using the proceeds to give back to her community.
“There is a dream-like sense in many of the artworks Gul submitted with her application and room for the viewer to envision their own narrative and reflect on their own experience within each piece,” Fitzgerald says. “I was fortunate to have the opportunity to work through this process with Gul and see her art come to life. She was a wonderful reminder of the exceptional talent this campus holds within all facets of our student body.”
Iowa has long been known for collaboration between the arts and sciences, and Fitzgerald says Mehboob is a wonderful example of this rich part of Iowa history.
“Many of the students I work with across this campus are melding multiple passions and reinventing how we approach work,” Fitzgerald says. “Thinking outside of a single field of study often opens our eyes and minds to new ideas, and builds collaboration across disciplines. It’s where truly great ideas emerge and keeps artists and scholars inspired to achieve. Gul’s passion for helping others through her study of public health and volunteer initiatives is furthered by her creation and deep appreciation of art.”
Mehboob says it’s amazing to think that when she returns to Pakistan after earning a PhD, her artwork will remain permanently on display—with the original in the Office of the President and a print in the Vice President’s office suite in the Iowa Memorial Union.
“For something artistic of mine to remain here means a lot to me,” Mehboob says.