The Tuesday Conversation
Welcome back to our ongoing series, “The Tuesday Conversation.” Each week, we will feature discussions with Nevada business leaders working in many different ways to transform the state’s education system.
You can always find previous conversations on our website, NevadaSucceeds.org/Tuesday-Conversations
If you know someone you think should be highlighted here, please contact Dave Berns at email@example.com or (702) 510-4420.
HENDERSON BUSINESSMAN SHARES LESSONS
OF COMING TO AMERICA AS A TEENAGER
He was a shy young man who knew little about the social and cultural norms of life in the United States; just 15 years old, Adnan Khawaja and his family moved to Las Vegas 23 years ago from Pakistan.
Las Vegas was a natural destination for a family in pursuit of The American Dream. His mother’s extended Filipino-American relatives had lived here since the 1970s.
So when young Adnan arrived there was some familiarity to be found, but a new language and culture, particularly one as high-powered as the Las Vegas version, all provided an existential shock to a teen-age boy trying to find his way in a foreign country.
Twenty-three years later, Khawaja, owner of Sky Vista Consulting, a Henderson marketing firm, has a perspective on the experience of immigrant students within our public education system, a perspective that’s particularly relevant in today’s diverse Clark County School District. Click the links to view videoed portions of our conversation.
Question: How difficult was it for you to communicate when you arrived here at the age of 15?
Khawaja: I speak close to five languages. The primary language (of Pakistan) is Urdu. My mom being Filipino, she learned the language as well, so she could communicate to a decent extent. Growing up, obviously, I had an accent.
I had to literally translate in my head. When I first started off here in high school I had a challenge where I wasn’t able to communicate as fast. Now what you hear is years and years of practice and communicating. Education obviously played a big role, going through the school system, university and going through the whole process of being in business. So learning English became my priority.
It wasn’t my primary language. I made it a priority that I needed to learn English well, and I think I’ve succeeded.
Question: How do you describe your education experience through the Clark County School District and UNLV?
Khawaja: I’m a product of the higher-ed system and the K-12 system here. I feel like it’s all based on three things: your household environment, the teachers who taught you over time, and self-motivation.
If you have the right kind of mentor...they’re the ones that pave the way for the future. Mentorship in the education system is very critical. If somebody were to tell me that the education system here is bad, I would say that you need to re-look at the whole question. It depends upon what your upbringing was and what the overall mentorship was that you had through your schools years.
Question: How would you define The American Dream?
Khawaja: To me the American Dream is a two-tiered dream. The main American Dream is success, and success is very subjective. You define success however you want to. To me, the American Dream is being able to help your community. To me, being a first-generation immigrant, if I’m living the American Dream that means being able to do whatever you want and being able to help out others. That to me is the American Dream.
Question: If you could fix or change some things about the K-12 and Higher Education systems, what would you do, particularly for immigrants?
Khawaja: I had a lot of teachers who were cognizant of where you were from but at the same time they didn’t treat you differently. I felt that when I wanted the help, that’s something I got right away from teachers. I also met a lot of teachers who were from diverse backgrounds, as well.
The one piece of advice I would give is really approach students individually, give a one-on-one perspective to students regardless of whatever background they are from because...the socioeconomic factors make a big difference, too.
Extracurricular activities are important, too. I would am a big proponent of extra-curricular activities to help out.
Question: Any other changes?
Khawaja: If there were one change, I would say reduce the classroom size. There’s only so much that one teacher can give attention to in terms of students. A student can easily get lost if the size is too large. It’s a numbers game at the end. I understand, but if there were more teachers to help with the numbers of students that would increase the visibility of the (student) talent.
Some students may require a little more attention...and so recognizing that can make a big difference. And you know, in the case of introverts versus extroverts, I think that attention makes a big impression, especially if you’re younger.
If teachers have fewer students, I think that would make a difference in how they can cater to every student, and I think that would be a (predictor) of success in the Nevada school system.
Question: If 38-year-old Adnan could go back to speak to 15-year-old Adnan, what would you tell him, knowing now what you do about the value of education?
Khawaja: If I were to approach myself at that age I would probably tell myself to focus on things that you know you could do better versus focusing on the weaknesses...I was too concerned about my English sounding good. I worried: “Am I doing the right thing by talking?” and so I turned out to be an introvert in high school.
So if I were to go back, I would probably tell myself – focus on the strengths that you have, which is common sense, and be smart at the books. That would be my approach.