From around the world to Brandman: University’s students are a lesson in cultural diversity
They came from other countries, at different ages, with different goals. And yet, Shadi Ziaei, Selene Mendez and Huda Judeh have this in common: They chose Brandman to further their educations.
Ziaei came as a teenager as part of the Iranian diaspora. Mendez was 8 years old and spoke little English when she made it to California from Mexico. Judeh, living in the Palestinian Territories and working in Israel, married an American and arrived here with a bachelor’s degree already earned.
Each of them faced challenges before and after reaching the U.S. and each had hoped to share her story as a commencement address. Although their speeches were not selected (it’s a fierce competition), their stories speak to both the diversity of Brandman’s students and to the way Brandman students thrive with the help of faculty, staff and classmates.
Ziaei’s childhood and adolescence in Iran made her a witness to both war and revolution. While she considered moving to the U.S. exciting – it gave her a chance to indulge in the pop culture she loved, including Michael Jackson concerts – it wasn’t without struggles.
In Iran, her father was the vice president of a company, and they lived a comfortable upper-middle-class life. In the U.S., he took work at a gas station and made deliveries. “I was young so didn’t really realize the difficulties my parents faced.”
Already fluent in English (“I loved the language”), the academic side of high school was relatively easy if the social side wasn’t.
Although her parents were open-minded about her continuing her education, Ziaei remembers being eager to work, partly so she could have money to spend the way she wanted to spend it. She eventually completed her bachelor’s in English and creative writing at San Francisco State University, a journey that took 10 years because of financial considerations and changing her major several times.
“I was always a creative person and wanted to go into art and philosophy,” she said. She also had a strong interest in technology which eventually led her to graphic design, website design and IT management.
When her son was 7 years old, she decided it was time to do something for herself. An MBA in organizational leadership seemed to fit, as did Brandman’s flexible schedule. It also helped that the Walnut Creek campus was right across from her workplace.
“I pursued my MBA for self-development. But my education did something bigger for me. It validated me. Every class validated that I was doing something right at work,” she said. “Every student validated that I wasn’t the only one crazy enough to attend school at almost 50 and as a busy working mom and wife.”
Finishing her MBA (she took classes on and off for four years), also coincided with a new job opportunity. “I think it’s funny how it’s all coming together. The MBA definitely helps.”
Brandman’s approach also reconnected her to her interest in philosophy. “I really enjoyed the ethics class because it had to do with leadership and all that’s going on around us in the world.”
Ian Grimbaldeston, her ethics instructor, said Ziaei brought energy, wisdom, humor and curiosity to the process of learning. “She is both an exceptional student and a wonderful, decent, human being, full of kindness and empathy.”
Ziaei put it this way. “Education opened my mind. I learned to listen.”
Mendez remembers her early years defined by separation. For years, her father, who first came to the U.S. to work in the fields, traveled back and forth to Mexico on a work visa. When he became a permanent resident, he moved the family north to Monterey, eventually gaining citizenship for all but her oldest siblings.
The hardest part of the move, she recalled, was going to school and not being able to speak English. The even harder part came later when a high school counselor told her she was not “college material.”
“Until this day, I don’t know what she meant by that. I do know that I proved her wrong,” said Mendez.
Despite that counselor’s assessment, others saw the straight-A student’s potential. A soccer coach connected her with a program that helped guide her through the college application process. She earned her Bachelor of Science from California State University, Monterey Bay, in four years.
It almost didn’t happen. Shortly before graduation, her capstone advisor rejected her submission, saying he had never seen her work despite drafts and emails that said otherwise. Another professor eventually signed off on her capstone, allowing her to graduate as expected, but the experience was traumatizing.
“I thought, I’m done with going to school,” she recalled. Her dream of pursuing a master’s degree disappeared. “I thought, now I have no clue what to do. I’m just going to start working.”
Then, seemingly out of nowhere, a coworker in the Monterey Peninsula Unified School District’s After School Academy where Mendez was a site director, told her about Brandman.
“It was exactly what I wanted.” The ability to take classes after work combined with an academic advisor who “walked me through everything” made Brandman the opposite of her other experiences.
That academic advisor, Seble Ayalew (now the director of Brandman’s Monterey campus), gives Mendez the credit for being an excellent and inspiring student.
With a Master of Arts in Psychology with combined marriage and family counseling and professional clinical counseling emphases, Mendez said, more than anything, she wants to make a difference and hopes eventually to develop a private practice.
Meanwhile, she has advice for her coworkers. “I hear the excuses all the time about going back to school – ‘I don’t have time, I need my job’ – I tell them they can. I tell everyone to go to Brandman.”
While Mendez and Ziaei faced school challenges, Judeh, who earned her bachelor’s degree in computer system engineering from Birzeit University, faced the challenge of adjusting to life as an adult in a new country and worrying about what was happening at the place she still thought of as home.
Marriage brought her to the U.S. – a place she still finds amazing after a life in Israel filled with multiple checkpoints, shootings and danger. “Where I worked was maybe 20 minutes away from where I lived. Instead, it could take 2 hours. Sometimes, I had to walk 10 miles, maybe more, to cross the border.”
Children in the U.S., including her own, she said are “blessed with everything. I want the people there to be safe.”
But arriving in Northern California without friends and family beyond her husband was a difficult adjustment. “I was sensitive. Somebody would say something positive, and I would take it the wrong way.”
In her nine years here, she’s learned to adjust. She marvels at how her daughters, Angelina and Joanne, speak unaccented English. She also wants them to know where she once lived and worked, though that has proved difficult.
“I’m Christian, from Ramallah,” she said. But during a recent trip, she couldn’t take her children from there to Jerusalem. “So many things are not allowed. Hopefully one day this will be possible.”
When it comes to her own future, Judeh’s goal is to teach, and a master’s degree starts her in that direction. Ultimately, she would like to teach at the college level. For now, she’s thrilled to be working at Academy of 21stCentury Learning a private K-12 school in Vacaville. The school shares her vision of thinking “outside the box,” something she thinks working toward her MBA in eBusiness strategic management at Brandman helped develop. The academy’s emphasis on science, technology, the arts and math, also plays to her interests and strengths.
“What we learned in our courses were not just classes on management. They were lessons on life we will take with us forever,” she said, giving School of Business faculty member Helen Eckmann, Ed.D., credit for guiding her to a higher level of achievement than she thought possible.“I have discovered a passion for learning and exploring. For that, I am forever thankful.”
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