Wide Awake: Meeting the President
Not what you think – but still pretty great

I’ve met many South Jersey people I admire and like. But every now and then, I meet a new person, and the minute after our meeting ends, I feel compelled to call someone – usually Joe – to describe every detail about this remarkable person. It doesn’t happen often, but it did happen a few weeks ago.

I had seen this gentleman before at some community events, but I had always thought he looked unapproachable, even a little intimidating. I was introduced to him once, but I simply smiled and didn’t say much. I judged him incorrectly, and I missed out.

I met Dr. Ali Houshmand, president of Rowan University, for a pre-interview a few days before I was to moderate a panel for a women’s group at the school. This is the man I had viewed as unapproachable, and this is the man I grabbed my phone to tell Joe all about. I spent about 40 minutes in Dr.‬‬ Houshmand’s office at Rowan, and as I left, I told him I wished I could spend the rest of the day talking to him. And I really did. It was 9:30 am, and I would have cleared my day to hear more of his stories and advice and reflections.

Dr. Houshmand told me right away I could ask him anything during our meeting.

He told me about growing up in the slums of Iran. He said he now speaks to kids in Camden to tell them he knows what it feels like to go to bed hungry every night. But he doesn’t say that to sympathize with them; his message is to toughen up, persevere and succeed, because that’s what he did. He accepts no excuses.

As a kid, he rarely bathed because his family couldn’t afford the public baths. He played soccer barefoot, and as a teenager he got into a lot of trouble. But his parents valued education, and he did well in school. When he was 18, his brother somehow scrounged together $50 to send him to England to continue his education. He arrived in London not speaking any English, with no money and nowhere to live. Over the years, he was beaten up because of the color of his skin. One time his jaw was broken.

He told me about his daughter. When she was a teenager, he told her four things: 1.) Learn math, because that teaches you to think logically. 2.) Become a runner, because you will feel pain and have to keep going. 3.) Never let a man pay for you. Pay for yourself. 4.) Until you are older, don’t trust any boy.

Those four lessons were the first thing I recounted to Joe about my meeting, because we have three daughters. “I feel like such a slacker,” Joe said.

I asked Dr. Houshmand to describe his work ethic. He works all the time, he told me, 24 hours a day. He believes he even works when he sleeps, because when he wakes up he has ideas that he quickly writes down.

I asked if he ever takes a break. He doesn’t.

I asked if he was happy, and he looked pensively for quite a while. There was this prolonged silence, and I didn’t say anything, because I hoped he would come to the conclusion that he was. But he didn’t say that exactly. He talked about something called imposter syndrome and feeling like no matter what – no matter how many millions of dollars he has brought into the university, no matter the new medical school, the re-invented downtown, the increased research or the expanded partnerships with community colleges – he always feels he could do better. He has spent his whole life thinking he hasn’t done enough, that he should be doing more.

My time with this gracious man reassured me. It’s not often you meet someone in a position of leadership and power who thinks so carefully and deeply about the world around him. It’s quite an admirable quality. It makes him one of the good guys.

December 2016
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