Hassan Akmal: Championing Change

Hassan Akmal, MBA, MPH, joined Loyola as Director of Business Career Services in May 2014 after a very successful career as a visionary, career thought leader, and director of career services at multiple locations in both New York and Southern California. He’s committed to coaching career-seekers who will strengthen our global business system. He aims to foster a university-wide, living career culture that’s vibrant, readily visible, and celebrates and breathes success. In 2015, he pioneered a new career services connector model and project entitled: “BRIDGE: Building Relationships and Interconnectedness Directed (towards) Graduation and Fulfilling Employment.” He is an expert in career outcomes and transformational trends in career and experiential education. As he leads an impactful team, he hopes to help students connect passion to purpose, and instill “career readiness” while bridging new lines of communication and collaboration that champion change—commensurate positive change. He is a former Chief Executive Officer for a global nonprofit that focuses on forced migration and health, Financial Advisor for UBS Financial Services, and Business Development Manager.
Akmal, also a former professional tennis player and member of the UCLA men’s tennis team, also completed a five-year prestigious contract as the International Right to Play Athlete Ambassador to the United States. He is beginning his 8th year as a Director of Career Services, serves as the Chair of Career Education and is both an Adjunct Professor and External Advisory Board Member for Health Systems Management at the Marcella Niehoff School of Nursing. He is also the Loyola Chapter Faculty Advisor for Aahana, a not-for-profit organization dedicated to education of social inequalities to empower communities.

 

A warm tear slowly fell down my cheek as the respirator was lifted from the lifeless body. The man`s struggle was finally over. I remember holding his hand, kissing him on his forehead, and staring in his eyes just minutes before his fatal stroke quickly diminished the little life still left within him. That man, my father, was well on his way towards the heavens above, leaving my family behind to confront the world alone.

As I watched the paramedics pull the sheets over his forehead, I remember trembling. I realized the terrible struggle that lied ahead as I listened to my mother crying uncontrollably. During that moment, I recalled my father speaking of displaced populations, refugees, and orphans and how he would compare their extraordinary struggles to ours. He said never to complain because there are people with greater problems and with very little opportunity in many distant regions of the world.

My father always emphasized the need to take advantage of our opportunities here in America in order to help the well-being of those underserved communities far away, not just the health of individuals near us. This tutelage instilled a love in me of serving others that still endures to this day. I was only eleven years old, but I understood clearly and with this in mind, I looked forward relentlessly.

I was reminded of this invaluable service one day at dinner my father took my plate away from me. He asked, “Are you done?” I responded, “Yes”. I had finished eating, so he took the place, but he poured water on all the crumbs remaining on it, and then drank the water and crumbs together. Then he said, “now you`re done”, and explained that I should never waste food, not even a crumb or a grain of rice. He said that there are refugees and displaced populations starving in other parts of the world and an excess of food supply, but that it is not balanced. He said those people have nothing in their hands and stomachs, and nobody to help them. He said he had experienced one of the most disheartening and demoralizing aspects of life growing up in South Asia when he saw groups of people forced from another place, especially Afghan refugees. Many of them had no treatment for their diseases and were severely mentally and physically challenged. He said he used to wonder what would happen to them, whether the children would ever get immunizations, trained health care, or whether they would receive education, financial support, etc. Upon hearing all of this, I recognized the importance and need for the assessment of their health needs, and consequently, the delicacy in the design and evaluation of new health programs. I also knew that the only way I could make a lasting impact in these populations was if I pursued a career in public health.

I admire my father`s endless contribution to the homeless communities in South Asia. He and his friends used to always organize fundraisers in order to help expand health and community service programs, but this alone was not enough to make me want to pursue my Master`s in Public Health. My interest in public health also sparked with my enjoyment of health promotion and disease prevention while working at the UMMA Free Clinic in South Central Los Angeles. I was able to test my aptitude for a public health career in the most medically underserved region in the nation. As the clinic pleaded for funding with the city, I was able to participate in many of the discussions and grant writing efforts with agencies at the local, state, and national levels regarding issues in community health planning. This eventually led to federally funding whereas originally the clinic was dependent on public funding. This helped focus my energies in a variety of activities within public health and prepared me for its many future responsibilities.

Indeed I pursued my M.P.H. at Columbia University in 2002. I joined the Department of Population and Family Health, Forced Migration and Health Track, with a Focus in Epidemiology. My mentor at this time was the Director of the Program, Dr. Ronald Waldman, M.D./M.P.H. I completed my Practicum in Afghanistan in 2003 after almost getting kidnapped in the tribal areas, and graduated in 2004. I shared my extraordinary story over breakfast one-on-one with late Allen Rosenfield, M.D., former Dean of the Mailman School of Public Health. It was an honor and I appreciated all of his guidance towards my growing career.

Over the past 20 years, my motivation and desire have been largely shaped and enlarged by the memory of my father`s wise counsel. I remember walking and seeing a billboard reading, “Lead by Example”. This previous slogan is now the theme for the non-profit 501 3 (c) tax-exempt corporation which I founded and built from scratch in 2006. I always had an entrepreneurial spirit, but this certainly no easy task. There was first a vision in my mind. Each accomplishment, big or small, illuminated the pixels which will eventually formed the picture that now after 6 years, we can begin to admire. The organization now has over 25 ongoing projects worldwide in over 10 different countries. Currently, we are applying for Consultative Status with the United Nations Economic and Social Council. This status allows non-governmental organizations to network and collaborate with the UN.

By working in finance with health organizations, it complementing my experience as a public health entrepreneur, public health advisor, and rising health analyst. I was able to assist in worldwide health relief in regards to assessments and analysis, but also in the application of much needed interventions while promoting the ethical, socially responsible, and community based interest-free concepts that help give ownership to displaced persons. I learned some of the key strategies by working at socially responsible community based financial institutions. This enhanced my global grasp on standards for relief efforts and helped me provide a more promising and sustainable action plan towards potential outcomes for underserved regions, specifically where these efforts are drawn.

I was always inspired by Mahatma Ghandi`s quote, “Be the change you want to see”, and I wanted to be that leader for change. I believed that even if one person in a community is inspired, it is enough, because every community needs a leader. My passion towards fulfilling a mission and impacting change is reflected throughout my personality. I am absolutely committed to working with underserved communities under the rubric of public health. The experience I have received while working with many different state and local government agencies on critical public health issues has driven my enthusiasm. I now teach global health for Loyola University Chicago and serve as a Faculty Advisor for Aahana’s Loyola Student Chapter. Ahana is a non-profit 501 3 (c) organization working in the United States and India to empower individuals to be the agents of their own change. They strive to abolish ignorance through the education of social inequalities to empower communities in India.

Traveling has not only had a formative and influential impact on my decisions to pursue a career in public health; it has also broadened my horizons. Working and gaining experience in international humanitarian relief at the headquarters level and in the field for various organizations Plan International has been a valuable journey with many new discoveries. In many third world countries, health and education have been relegated to the lowest priority in the national agenda. The inadequate public sector health facilities in the urban areas and the virtually non-existent health cover for the rural population has deteriorated with the ever-increasing demands of a rapidly growing population.

The standard of medical, dental, nursing and paramedical education has also been declining for a variety of complicated reasons. There is very little training for local nurses and medical staff and scant supplies to help refugees that are ill. Witnessing this on many occasions has helped define my life`s work in the health care arena, thinking about how to provide better health care to the underserved, and especially refugees.

Fully inspired and building on my experience through the years, I have learned from many different levels of governmental agencies that native programs, infrastructure and organizations have unique strengths in identifying areas of need and opportunity. Thus, by networking within communities and then outside to set up ongoing processes that will continue to grow, it will increase a community`s natural resources and confidence.

“A working health system improves health”, as US AID quotes. I have learned this first-hand. While working with local and state governmental agencies, we were able to acquire land to help build a new multiple rehabilitation center for handicapped children orphaned after the tsunami in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. Working with state departments in California as well as in New York has also been valuable. For example, while conducting community service projects such as HIV/AIDS awareness, prevention, and research in the Bronx with Yeshiva University and Albert Einstein College of Medicine, it has given me the confidence to continue my work, indicative of the value that it holds.

I am an intellectually curious person and a problem solver and have always enjoyed the pursuit of knowledge and finding solutions to complex problems. In an emergency, effective risk communication is vital because it helps the public respond to the crisis, reduces the likelihood of rumors and misinformation and demonstrates good leadership. Thus, I have learned in the field that a full-scale public health response to disasters must attend to both the physical and mental health needs of affected groups. The latter set of needs is especially important because most authorities agree that far more individuals will report psychologically-related complaints than will report physical symptoms directly stemming from the injury-causing agent or event. Because a large-scale emergency will overwhelm existing mental health response resources, psychological first aid – the provision of basic psychological care in the short term aftermath of a traumatic event – is an important skill set that all public health workers should possess.

In 1999, I traveled a great deal as a professional tennis player. I saw the desperate need for renovation, medical care, health promotion, and disease prevention near the borders of Pakistan and Afghanistan. One day I met a very young boy who was an orphan and a refugee. I was immediately able to see the world through the suffering in his eyes. He was an inspiration to me and I still keep his picture with me in my office. It’s kids like him that helped me dream. I dreamed of following a path that would assess and identify disparities in access to health care, quality of health care, and health status for communities separated from communities. In other words- displaced and underserved populations. This confirmed my will to pursue my degree at Columbia University, because it was the only program that focused on the relationship between Forced Migration and Health.

The field of public health strives to create healthier communities. Where medicine treats the individual, public health looks to the larger community. Those working in public health concentrate on efforts to assess the health of people and their environments. They develop policies and programs to shield and protect them, while helping them to lead healthier lives. In this context, the key is building relationships. This, in turn, leads to establishing a community liaison. This liaison bridges health access disparities through teamwork, collaboration, cooperation, and constructive dialogue.

As the Founder of a public health non-profit organization, Invitation Relief, it has allowed me to see public health systems and programs in many different contexts, from the beginning until the end. Having undergone a great deal of hardship from the moment my father died, I have learned how to deal with stress at a very young age. This has prepared me not only for the new challenges that lie ahead in public health, but has also strengthened me intellectually and emotionally.

I have learned that public health is the most appropriate career for me not only because it is best suited to me, but because it also gives me a chance to give back to society what it has graciously given me, opportunity. I try to accomplish this as the Chair of Career Education and as a Director of Career Services at Quinlan School of Business, now in my 8th year in the field. Simply put, I help build dream and witness their impact.

The ability for success lies in being well prepared to make a sound and meaningful contribution. Communication is imperative to deliver the message at stake. In order to develop programs which are effective, it is imperative to present on a variety of critical issues facing populations to key personnel. This has equipped me with my own self-expectations. These expectations are what help me achieve the goals at hand, such as when relating existing problems to higher authorities in an effort to induce change. My old boss used to say, “Every person that knocks on your door is a gift from God”. To me, this means that it’s time to figure out what the value is. Communicating information was of the utmost importance for Afghan refugees. During my practicum in Afghanistan in 2003, the refugees I spoke to asked me to just go back to the United States and tell anyone what is happening there, in hopes that help might arrive someday. Thus, presenting on various gaps in public health systems and on recommendations for improved access to health care was of similar value.

I believe that if I work hard enough, I can create opportunities which didn’t exist before.
One personal aim in presenting public health issues to relevant individuals such as government officials, stakeholders, and public health professionals was to break down the barriers that often develop between academic public health and field-based public health agencies. I have learned that by helping underserved communities through improved access to education and enterprise using cost effective technology and strengthening local resources, you can build their capacity.

When a population is separated from a community, such as in cases of forced migration, it usually limits their resources, causing a barrier preventing them from access to medical care and attention. By reconnecting them strategically to their natural resources, they can rebuild themselves. Therefore, I knew this would lead to a great practicum topic, as the war with Afghanistan had recently ended and there were close to 5 million refugees displaced.

While monitoring and analyzing projects related to the importance of children’s emotional and physical security after war, and how family separation, sexual assault, vulnerabilities, risk of neglect, disease, and other abuses that go along with the topic can have a distinctive psychosocial impact on them, many disparities surfaced. Plan International had no mental health program for the Afghani refugees. They needed additional help from abroad but were hesitant because many psychosocial programs, based on Western diagnosis – oriented theories of mental illness, overstep the traditional coping mechanisms of the Afghani and Pakistani cultures, thus resulting in adverse effects and wasted donor funds.

Thus, through past literature reviews and qualitative research in the refugee camps, the essential goals and purpose was to provide better solutions, ideas, and recommendations for psychosocial programs to be used with Afghanis in the refugee camps in Pakistan as well as the Afghani population in Afghanistan. I proposed a mental health development program collaborating Right to Play that was spearheading Sport for Development in the region. In February 2003, I was selected as an Athlete Ambassador for the United States on behalf of the sport of tennis. It was an honor. Right to Play is committed to every child’s right to play. They give children a chance to become constructive participants in society, regardless of gender, disability, ethnicity, social background or religion. Through games and sports, they help create social change in communities affected by war, poverty and disease. A member of a distinguished team of top athletes from more than 40 countries at the time, as role models, our job was to inspire children and raise awareness about Right to Play internationally. The aim was to engage key decision-makers from the development, sport, business, media and government sectors and further ensure every child benefits from the positive power of sport and play.

In conclusion, I hope by reading this, you will learn more about my current involvement in pertinent frontline issues and my commitment to humanity. Nothing has thwarted my efforts to succeed thus far. I am mentally, physically, and emotionally prepared to contribute and help others contribute as we must all be socially responsible. For the past couple years I have served on the Advisory Board for Invitation Relief’s work in Colombia with displaced persons from the civil war. Now, the focus is on the Syrian refugee crisis. Without being passionate about what I do, and compassionate, I just couldn’t continue trying to fulfill my dream of helping others achieve their dreams.

My passion is simple, motivating people. Whether it’s a refugee or a student to get out of bed and interview for a job, it doesn’t matter. The point is to not give up, have faith, and bring out the best in yourself. That, in turn, will bring out the best in others.

“Excellence is an art won by training and habituation. We do not act rightly because we have virtue or excellence, but we rather have those because we have acted rightly. We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act but a habit.” -Aristotle