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Challenge Accepted: Francis Yasharian, Ed.L.D.'16

Francis YasharianIt’s not every day that people arrive on Appian Way in celebrity fashion in a limousine. But for Francis Yasharian’s family, he wouldn’t have them arrive at 2016 Convocation in any other way.

“When I made the shift to education, my grandmother told me, ‘I imagined you picking up your mom in a limo as an ambassador and now I see you picking her up in a calesa, a donkey cart in the Philippines,” Yasharian laughs. So, he got his mother and other family members a limo for HGSE Convocation. It turns out Yasharian and company have a lot to celebrate.

Education wasn’t part of Yasharian’s plan. In fact, when he arrived at American University as an undergraduate, he was focused on a career in international relations. Yet, a volunteer program teaching English to recent immigrants at the Indochinese Community Center tapped an inner passion, taking himself and his Spanish-Filipino grandmother by surprise. But Yasharian’s career shift couldn’t have been a better decision, as he flourished quickly working his way up the education world from teaching to school leadership.

Though he quips that coming to the Ed.L.D. Program was partially fueled by his desire to earn a doctorate before turning 40, he also found that heading the lower school for boys at Springside Chestnut Hill Academy in Philadelphia, made him think about how to provide a good education for more people through choice. “Philly has lots of choices for independent schools, if you are willing to pay $30,000, but so many people can’t do that,” he says.

He arrived at HGSE focused on school choice. “I thought if each kid had a school that met his or her need then that would be great,” he says. “I still believe that but I don’t necessarily believe that the ways we normally think about choice makes that happen.”

But soon his ideas began to shift. After taking a course in design learning, he thought more about the power of personalized learning. He began to see school choice more about making every school better and embracing personalized learning than providing different school options. He was also exploring his long-held interest in leadership development, and what it takes to grow the type of leader who can create personalized learning in existing schools.

Then, in year two of the Ed.L.D. Program, Yasharian hit a bump in the road. When he was diagnosed with a rare, aggressive cancer requiring major surgery and 160 hours of chemotherapy, it could have meant the end of his studies. For Yasharian, quitting the program and not graduating was never an option. With the help of family, faculty, his cohort, and adviser Senior Lecturer Elizabeth City, he continued onward.

“Liz told me to focus on myself, get healthy, and that they’d work with me to make sure I graduate. And, that stuck with me. That was the worst winter in Boston’s history — when we had 10 feet of snow,” he recalls. “I don’t think there’s anyone else whose adviser trekked through 10 feet of snow to spend time with them at home and be with them during a dark time.”

By April 2015, he was cancer free. Soon after, Yasharian began his third-year residency at the New York City Leadership Academy — a national leader in the field of coaching. Part of Yasharian’s work at the Academy included leading a small group of coaches in articulating what leadership coaches need to know and be able to do in order to facilitate strong leadership development. “As people rise through ranks, it gets harder and harder to find meaningful learning opportunities and coaching presents a real avenue. We know right now what we are currently doing to develop school principals isn’t working — 50 percent of school principals don’t last beyond three years,” he says. “There’s a real need and need gets even greater when we think of district- and system-level leaders meeting the challenge of today’s education.”

Yasharian says that three things can help create positive leadership development that meets the complexity of modern education: starting from a place of respect and building on strengths; shifting perspectives in order to allow for a true transformation of American education regarding race and socioeconomic status; and expanding the definition of leadership beyond instructional leadership.   

“If improving schools only took knowing instruction better, our educational system wouldn't have the problems it currently does. It needs to include things like communication, resilience, problem solving, relationship building, and more,” he says.

Yasharian will continue working on leadership development and coaching at the Academy following Commencement. But first, he represented his cohort as marshal, which he found a fitting end to his time at HGSE.

“The beautiful thing about Ed.L.D. is people saw me for all of Francis not just a student but the whole person,” he says. “It’s completely different to show it through actions and not just say that. Everyone got behind me in the program during that trying times and supported me. I’m cancer free and graduating with my doctorate on time and that’s because of the great people who are part of program and my cohort who helped make that happen.”