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No Child Overlooked: Aziz Ahmadi, HDP'22

The Intellectual Contribution Award recipient for Human Development and Psychology reflects on his time at HGSE and looks toward the future.
Aziz Ahmadi and family

"This photo captures so much of not just the last two years of grad school, but the culmination of so much of the hopes, dreams, and sacrifices of both my and my wife’s family."

Photo: Courtesy of Aziz Ahmadi

The Intellectual Contribution Award recognizes graduating Ed.M. students (one from each Ed.M. program) whose dedication to scholarship enhanced HGSE’s academic community and positively affected fellow students. Aziz Ahmadi will be honored with the Intellectual Contribution Award for Human Development and Psychology (HDP) Program during HGSE's Convocation exercises on May 25.

Professor Meredith Rowe and Senior Lecturer Richard Weissbourd, faculty directors of HDP, comments on Ahmadi's selection:“We're delighted to give the intellectual contribution award to Aziz Ahmadi. He is passionate about ideas, raises challenging questions, and enthusiastically and constructively engages his classmates. He has been a great spirit and a wonderful community builder in HDP, and he is deeply appreciated by both his classmates and faculty.”

We spoke to Ahmadi about his time at HGSE, his future plans, and how the pandemic has changed the education landscape:

What does the above photo mean to you and how does it represent your time at HGSE?

After a two-year delay, my wife and I were finally able to have a nikah, an Afghan ceremony where we were able to celebrate our marriage, delayed due to COVID. My parents spent years in refugee camps and at-risk of death escaping the Soviet Union and making their way to the United States; my mother-in-law holds a similar tale close to her, having escaped Vietnam during the Vietnam War. For both of our families, the past two years have been their wildest dreams; for my parents, their child being accepted to an elite institution when they weren’t even sure I was going to graduate high school due to the consequences of being a first gen in poverty; for my wife, her parents watching their daughter finally wrap up residency and over a decade of education. 

This photo serves of a reminder of those that have been most supportive of not just me during grad school, but my wife as well as she worked in a strained medical system and with COVID patients; it represents the sacrifice loved ones make so that their loved ones can continue to work in public service; be it my wife coming home exhausted from 24-hour call and partaking in the kind act of cleaning dishes that I’ve left due to the demands and stressors of being a public school teacher and part-time graduate student; or my in-laws and my parents coming over to cook and clean our house that remains eternally empty due to our demanding work schedules; even my sister, who’d make long treks to our house to walk our dogs who we’d be unable to see at times due to long hours. The past two years have been a testament to the sacrifice that love demands, and this photo is filled with those that have sacrificed most for me to be where I am today.

"The attacks on public education that have been occurring recently have been disheartening, and living through the pandemic as an active teacher, feeling and seeing the burnout firsthand in myself and my friends, drives home the importance of continued support, reform, and work necessary in our public schools and with our youth."

What were your goals in coming to the Ed School — and have those goals changed?  

My goal from youth was always to be in a public service role. At my alma mater, the University of California, Riverside, I found myself volunteering as an English Teacher to foreign students and helping to establish and run a nonprofit organization, the Riverside Youth Judo Club (RYJC). The former ignited my love of education, chiefly the relational aspects of it; getting to know people deep down, what drives them, their goals, and how I can bridge their current state with their ideal dream state. 

The RYJC brought to surface a drive of that passion and helped me define my raison d’etre — serving children who are overlooked, discouraged, and cast away. The RYJC began as a Police Activities League organization geared towards utilizing the sport of Judo — an Olympic sport I’ve played for over a decade now — to engage and develop at-risk youth within the city of Riverside. Our mission today is to run the largest Judo organization in the United States, with much of our population being at risk and having some type of developmental, physical, or mental challenge. The goal is to instill a sense of community, belonging, caring, and public service in our kids; to have children who come from underserved and challenging backgrounds recognize that while they’ve been placed in a difficult position through no fault of their own, they can overcome and thrive with the right supports provided and taken advantage of — and that we are a resource with unlimited support for them. It’s been a pleasure to see some of the amazing results that our large community of instructors, volunteers, families, and supporting organizations, the Riverside Police Department, and Riverside Police Officers Association have been able to achieve.

Yet in both my nonprofit experience and full-time employment as a public middle school history teacher, I still have witnessed children with unlimited potential and amazing resources flounder. It flustered me, knowing that there were reasons beyond what I had the knowledge and capacity for driving both the successful and not-so-successful stories. This desire to dive deeper into that question — What makes a thriving, successful individual? —was what brought me to HGSE. My hope was to have those questions answered through deep dives into contextual factors in an individual’s development; the reality is I’m leaving with an even greater set of directed questions and a larger thirst for knowledge! 

How has the pandemic shifted your views of education?   

Teaching and working in one of the largest Title 1 Districts in the state of California, I saw firsthand the number of students who “disappeared” and the little action I could take. Actively teaching during the return to school, I’ve witnessed the severe deficits in academic and personal skills, maturity, and drive that many students are facing. The pandemic has highlighted the long-standing inequities and cracks that have existed in our nation’s democratic systems, education included. It’s highlighted further the importance of a relationships-first approach to education, of understanding the story of each child in your classroom to the best of your ability so you can better serve them, and most importantly of self-care for educators at a time where national polling cites education as one of the most challenging work environments, with educators having abnormally high rates of burnout, anxiety, and depression.

What are your post-HGSE plans?

Public education is the last bastion of democracy in the United States; it remains one of the few institutions in our society that truly is — or at least attempts to be — accessible to all, regardless of religion, income, ethnicity, or even documented status. The attacks on public education that have been occurring recently have been disheartening, and living through the pandemic as an active teacher, feeling and seeing the burnout firsthand in myself and my friends, drives home the importance of continued support, reform, and work necessary in our public schools and with our youth. My work with the RYJC, serving at-risk and special needs children, as well as my teaching experience drive me to continue my education through a Ph.D., with particular interest in better understanding the connection between education, social determinants, and public health. Education is a major factor in an individuals later life quality; I hope to be able to continue serve the public in a role that seeks to improve circumstances for children so that they can thrive in their youth and adulthood.