Dr. Emad Rahim Offers Words of Empowerment for Students, Graduates, and Entrepreneurs

By University Staff

Dr. Emad Rahim

Our fall 2018 commencement speaker Dr. Emad Rahim has followed a unique path from being a young refugee of the genocidal Khmer Rouge Killing Fields of Cambodia and later a childhood abuse victim in the United States, to his eventual successes as a student, entrepreneur, motivational speaker, and nontraditional education advocate. 

Rahim’s early school years were a reflection of his difficult upbringing. After earning poor grades in special education classes through high school, he finally received a diagnosis of dyslexia while nearly failing out of community college. Thanks to an encouraging instructor who helped him identify the disease, Rahim opened his eyes to the possibilities ahead as an adult student. 

“My professor didn’t allow me to take the labeling as a negative,” Rahim notes. “He told me ‘it was a great opportunity because you can learn, you just learn differently.’ That changed my life.” 

Inspired by the advice of his mentor, Rahim embraced the diagnosis and took control of his future. 

“In a year and a half, I got my associate degree,” he recalls. “It was something I’d never felt before. It was like an adrenaline rush, and it made me want more. In two more years, I got my bachelor’s degree in community human service from SUNY Empire State College. As an adult student, everything I learned in class I was applying at work, and I could see what I was learning impacted my ability to solve problems, my communication skills were developing, I could articulate better, and as I became more educated, I wanted to do more.”

Rahim went on to earn multiple degrees and certificates, including a master’s degree in business management, a master’s degree in project management, and a Doctorate of Management in Organizational Development from Colorado Technical University. He has since added to his list of achievements a post-doctoral diploma in marketing and management from the Tulane University A.B. Freeman School of Business, Post-Doctoral Research in Online Teaching from University of Maryland University College, and a earned a Post-Doctorate Certificate in higher education leadership from Harvard Graduate School of Education. 

By 33, Rahim was recruited to be a dean at Colorado Technical University, and by 36 he became Strayer University's curriculum dean and faculty fellow at the Jack Welch Management Institute. Today, Rahim serves as the interim dean of social impact at Claremont Lincoln University in California, as well as the Kotouc Family Endowed Chair for the Project Management Center of Excellence, Program Director of Project Management Degree Program (MPM) and Associate Professor (Kotouc Family Professorship) in the College of Science & Information Technology at Bellevue University.

In his latest book Resilience: Killing Fields to Boardroom (2016), Rahim outlines his S.A.L.T. model of surviving, adapting, loving, and transforming as a way to overcome the struggles he faced. Relying on these principles — and using an acronym that aptly stands for a preservative — he combated prejudice, violence, and dyslexia, and rose from a challenged student to become a leading voice of empowerment in the online education and business communities. 

Whether you are considering a college degree, currently enrolled in school, graduating and moving on to a career, or are in pursuit of multiple degrees, Rahim’s story serves as an example of strength, courage, and perseverance. Here he offers three tips for those seeking inspiration for the next stage of their lives.

1. Stop looking at the end game

Regardless of the steps you plan to take next in your academic or professional life, Rahim says when pursuing a goal, do not make the mistake of only looking at the end game. When you attend school, for example, don’t think about the piece of paper you will get. Instead, focus on the journey you are taking, learn to survive, and adapt.

“While it’s positive that you will graduate, you lose the experience of that time because all you did was rush to get that degree, and it’s difficult to reflect on what you obtained, how you matured, and the friendships you made, if all you did was focus on that end game,” he says.

Rather than viewing college as just a process, or your graduation as just a next step before moving on to something else, Rahim suggests taking advantage of all the benefits a university or place of employment offers you. Create friendships and relationships with faculty and colleagues. Develop and reflect on strengths and weaknesses and enjoy your education and life experiences. In the end, you will become a different and better person as a result.

“Even in the online learning environment, there are clubs, virtual clubs, alumni clubs, career clubs. These clubs, these student organizations, and the events they host, could be life changing because you can learn something outside of the classroom,” he says. “If you leave and have this piece of paper but have not changed, then you have not truly gained anything.” 

2. Invest in yourself

As a consumer, you spend money on the things you need and want: clothes, food, health care, cars, phones, your home, entertainment, and more. However, Rahim says people often hold back when it comes to investing in their education or professional development. Yet, offering yourself this type of self-love will pay off in the long-term.

“People say they don’t have the money for school, but I say, ‘Yes, you do!’ I see them wearing customized clothing and labels, and driving a nice car. Clothing is a gift to yourself. Investing in education is investing in yourself.”

Although you may have to sacrifice a new pair of jeans or an evening out with friends, Rahim says it will be worth it because in the end you will grow as a student and professional. Use the money you would otherwise have spent on a gift for yourself and attend a networking session or a conference instead. You can even invest your time and research the professor or professional who may be leading your next class or recruitment event. 

“Do your homework ahead of time, pick out what you can do to build a foundation, and get a career opportunity you want before you even graduate,” he says. “After all, that person you meet could be your future boss or business partner.” 

3. Be strategic

In order to transform, Rahim says you need to have a plan. Originally, he didn’t have one. Instead, Rahim focused on proving to others that he could earn his degrees and that an online education was equal to one received at a traditional school. 

It was during a presentation on the value of nontraditional doctoral programs at a conference full of traditionalists, however, when he realized his own shortcomings. While presenting his findings, he was interrupted and told that the doctorate in business administration he earned from Harvard’s online program was worthless because he earned it in a non-traditional way. Rahim became discouraged but kept his composure while listening to the comments. Eventually he packed to leave, but two attendees approached him to explain their position. It turns out they were not opposed to the path Rahim followed to earn his degree, but they were not in favor of those who do so without giving back somehow to the academic world. 

“That opened up my eyes, and I no longer just pursued my degree to earn it and a title, rather I said to myself, ‘I want to be a scholar so my resume looks like every other traditionalist,’” he explains. 

From that point, Rahim connected with other nontraditional academics pursuing doctoral degrees and partnered with three of them on research, resulting in dozens of published articles and dissertations. This work eventually led to job offers not presented to their other traditional colleagues.

By listening and adapting to create a strategy, Rahim discovered that people appreciated his ideas and were open to discourse. Most of all, the experience taught him that in order to be successful, people need to surround themselves with people who love them and their ideas. 

“With love, we can transform ourselves to be the person we want to become,” he concludes.

No matter where you’re headed with your academic or professional endeavors, by focusing on the journey, investing in yourself, and being strategic with your goals, you will be better equipped to navigate toward a more fulfilling future.


Written by Erin Ansley, Content Specialist

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