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NOVA Alum, Entrepreneur and DREAMER, Umaar Ehsan Heads to Harvard

NOVA Alum, Umaar Ehsan

Umaar Ehsan, a NOVA and Cornell graduate looks forward to his future at Harvard. Here, he speaks with NOVA about being a DREAMer and an entrepreneur and what he would tell other NOVA students.  He is also well known for Yobbz, a mobile app that connects people looking for employment with households or businesses that can offer them work doing things as mundane as mowing a lawn or as demanding as assisting on a construction site.

He has been mentioned a lot in recent press, and a local story can be found here: https://patch.com/virginia/fairfaxcity/fairfax-daca-recipient-seeks-support-75k-harvard-dream

Tell us a little bit about yourself:

When you think of a DACA recipient or "DREAMer," you might not think of me. I was born in Jhelum, Pakistan and was raised in Falls Church. After paying my own way through college and earning an associate degree at NOVA, I went on to earn a Bachelor of Science degree in Industrial Labor Relations from Cornell University. And now, I have been accepted into a Master’s program at Harvard Graduate School of Education (HGSE). 

DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) is an executive order passed under the Obama Administration which protects minors brought to the United States against deportation. It does not grant people legal status or a pathway to citizenship. The implications of DACA extend beyond immigration policy into the fabric of American society, going against William Tyler Page's vision of The American's Creed; principles of freedom, equality, justice, and humanity for which American patriots sacrificed their lives and fortunes.

Being an undocumented DACA student presents a unique set of challenges; but what I’ve learned is that education is the key to true freedom and effectively educating all people is the key to solving the world’s most difficult problems. My challenging circumstances have taught me valuable lessons, and I can offer a unique perspective with which I hope to impact the field of education and, ultimately, the world around me. 

What brought you to NOVA?

I can vividly remember the day I sat on the floor outside an acute care unit in which my 52-year-old father was having emergency surgery. I watched a small team of paramedics bow their heads in anticipation and sorrow. Moments earlier, they had been tirelessly working on reviving my father after he developed asphyxiating blood clots in his lungs as a result of a head-on collision with a drunk driver. As I sat there, I tried to bribe God with promises of good deeds in return for my father’s life. I slowly turned my head and saw the surgical team quietly leaving the care unit. They didn’t look my way, purposely avoiding eye contact. Even before I could compute the gravity of that moment, a sense of isolation and dread began to settle in. I would have to navigate a new map of the world, one that was stifling in its unnecessary complexity. I did my best to hold back the river of tears as I prepared to be told what I had already known.

To my siblings and me, he was more than a father—he was our lifeline. He came to the United States with the belief that one day the doors of opportunity would open for his children. But, when he passed away, our lives were on hold and at any moment we could have been uprooted from our home because our immigration status was compromised. It meant that we could not work or drive legally, and that higher education would only be a dream. 

Unable to enroll in college, I educated myself by reading biographies at the public library and spoke to local leaders about issues impacting our community. Not having access to mainstream institutions of learning fosters a keen sense of creativity and resourcefulness — two characteristics that have influenced my work ethic and leadership. When the Obama administration passed DACA, it allowed people like myself to break out of the shackles of our uncertainty. For me, that journey began with my enrollment in community college, where I earned an A.S. degree in Business Administration with highest honors. NOVA offered affordable in-state tuition, flexible course scheduling and would serve as a launch pad for continuing education at top-tier institutions. This held true because I ultimately transferred to Cornell University and Harvard University where I hope to learn what it takes to truly “change the world.”

What professors and classmates from NOVA do you still stay in touch with?

I’ve stayed in touch with Dr. Carolyn Carroll who was my Statistics and Calculus professor. She went beyond the call of duty to help myself and other students; she held flexible office hours and thoroughly reviewed challenging material. She listened and understood the concerns of her students and ensured that we were not only successful in mathematics, but she mentored us through life’s challenges. I am incredibly grateful for her guidance and mentorship. As for classmates, I’ve kept in contact with—there are simply too many to name!

What are your educational goals?

I discovered my true passion for helping others through entrepreneurial endeavors and extracurricular pursuits which taught me just how much I care about the world around me. I will be attending Harvard University where I am pursuing a Master’s of Education in Learning Design, Innovation, and Technology (LDIT). This program offers the tools necessary to become an effective and compassionate technologist in the field of education. NOVA and Cornell offered a robust scholastic foundation to absorb information, I want to continue to develop my passion for social change and technology in the LDIT program. 

The current global health crisis is accelerating higher education’s paradigm shift from in person to remote learning. Online credentialing programs and learning platforms are forcing established institutions to innovate faster than ever before. At HGSE, I hope to learn about the implications of this transformation and better understand strategies to improve education by finding commonalities between learners across various platforms. I want to optimize these findings with adaptive technology to help learners enhance their education in any field, and ultimately help them become global citizens. 

I hope to not only have access to courses that marry traditional learning with contemporary realities, but also to continue to learn from incredibly passionate students who are making a difference in higher education.

What are your career goals?

My ideal position is that of a User-Experience (UX) Developer in the field of education and learning. I want to create efficient, effective and pleasant user experiences across various digital platforms, while maintaining a core focus on academia and end-user learning.

What would you tell a student coming to NOVA?

Like other junior colleges, NOVA is a place of exploring your passions. It’s a place for developing your mind and organizing your future. Attending NOVA was certainly the most important decision of my life because it served as the launch pad for acceptance and success in top-tier higher education institutions and beyond. Most importantly, at NOVA, I learned how to learn. In other words, I learned how to be a better student through the various courses I attended in person and online. To succeed at NOVA, don’t be afraid to ask for help and utilize the endless resources offered by the college. Build alliances with classmates and staff who will guide you and help you navigate a new map of the world, one that is more dynamic and expands the limits of your mind. 

Lastly, college is your safe haven for making mistakes—so make mistakes, learn from them and move onward!

Northern Virginia Community College is the largest institution of higher education in the Commonwealth of Virginia and one of America's largest community colleges. NOVA enrolls more than 75,000 students at its six campuses in Alexandria, Annandale, Loudoun, Manassas, Springfield and Woodbridge, and through NOVA Online. For more information about NOVA and its programs or services, call 703-323-3000 or visit the College's Web site, www.nvcc.edu.

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