Last spring, during her campaign for the Illinois House of Representatives, Nabeela Syed was knocking on doors when she passed out in front of a potential constituent. “It was Ramadan, and I was fasting,” Syed, a devout Muslim, recalls. “I fainted on someone’s doorstep!”

All that effort paid off, though. In November, the Palatine native defeated a Republican incumbent to become the first Indian American and Muslim woman elected to the state legislature — and, at age 23, one of its youngest members ever. Syed now represents Illinois’s 51st District, which includes northwest suburbs from Inverness to Lake Zurich. 

In 2021, a few months before graduating from the University of California, Berkeley, Syed drove to Georgia with her friend Anusha Thotakura to mobilize Asian American voters to support Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff in the runoff that gave Democrats control of the U.S. Senate. Then, in April of that year, they helped a friend win a local school board election. “I didn’t want to stop,” Syed recalls. “Initially, I thought, Whose campaign can I help next?” Thotakura had a surprising answer: her own.

That fall, as Syed recovered from donating part of her liver to an acquaintance’s brother, the two women determined that victory was possible in the redrawn 51st District. Syed leveraged her knack for connecting with people — even those skeptical of a hijab-wearing young Democrat — by going door to door in neighborhoods and listening. “So many people told Nabeela they never had someone running for office come to their home before,” says Thotakura, who served as her campaign manager.

In Springfield, Syed plans to focus on such issues as gun violence, the environment, and the cost of prescription drugs. As for her future goals — D.C., perhaps? — she says, “Truthfully, I do not know. It’s funny, because I think other people have big plans for me. I’m like, whoa — I’m too excited about being a state rep right now.”