Becoming Extraordinary: Usama Javed Mirza (Ed.M., Curriculum & Teaching) | Teachers College Columbia University

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Becoming Extraordinary: Usama Javed Mirza (Ed.M., Curriculum & Teaching)

Usama Javed Mirza (Ed.M., Curriculum & Teaching)
Usama Javed Mirza (Ed.M., Curriculum & Teaching)
It was always obvious that Usama Mirza would become an educator. In Islamabad, Pakistan, Mirza was inspired by his second-grade teacher, Hareem Atif Khan. He also loved playing Pokémon because “it was all about training characters to bring out their full potential.

“There was something magical and deeply satisfying about seeing them grow from the ordinary into the extraordinary,” Mirza says – words that succinctly describe his own trajectory as he has sought to figure out precisely what it is he wants to teach. (The answer: Just about everything, including teaching itself.) Yet the road has not always been smooth.

As a physics major at Lahore University of Management Sciences, Mirza joined the school’s volunteer Emergency Medical Services Department, immersing himself in all-day weekend classes. Despite his best efforts, he found himself with shaking hands every time he picked up a bandage – mentally freezing with panic during practical simulations. “I felt like a complete failure and decided to quit – but then one instructor stopped me. He told me I just needed to believe in myself, and it was that faith in me that changed my life around.”

Mirza hung in and, as a senior, having responded to more than 250 emergencies and saved four lives, became head of training and development.

“I want to use everything I learned from my TC courses and the amazing people I've met here.”

“For the first time, I had creative license to design and implement a course,” he recalls. “I never forgot my how my mentor’s encouragement helped me overcome the crippling self-doubt that was holding me back. So I replaced the survival-of-the-fittest boot camp environment with a warm one where motivated students could grow at their own pace, without the constant fear of failing.  When he graduated, Mirza left behind the largest cohort of qualified first responders the program had yet produced.

Mirza subsequently returned to his old school to teach math, physics and first aid. He re-connected with Khan, who had since attended Teachers College as a Fulbright scholar, earned a master’s in Curriculum and Teaching in 2009 and served as a student speaker at Convocation.

“She pushed me to apply for the Fulbright and study at TC as well,” says Mirza. “Now she’s back here at the College pursuing a doctoral degree. In fact, she was my teacher this past semester in a course called The Teaching of Writing.”

At TC, Mirza has also worked closely with Mary Mendenhall, a leading authority on providing education to refugees, who has helped him plan and make important connections for a nonprofit he is launching that will teach the delivery of emergency medical care to people in remote Pakistani villages. Two other faculty members, Daniel Friedrich and Jacqueline Simmons, have helped guide his thesis inquiry into the politicized nature of science education in Pakistan, and develop a social justice science curriculum he plans on introducing to schools upon his return. Mirza also served as president of a TC student group that explored social justice issues relating to South Asia and its diaspora. And just for good measure, he organized a workshop for budding social entrepreneurs at TC that was led by Pakathon, a New York City-based startup incubator. 

Following TC’s Convocation – at which, like Khan, he is one of three student speakers – Mirza heads home to Pakistan with big plans. In addition to his emergency medical care venture, he’s co-launching an educational technology organization that’s developing a smartphone/tablet app to help teachers manage coursework. And he’ll resume working for a nonprofit that educates underprivileged children in poor neighborhoods. 

“I want to use everything I’ve learned from my courses and the amazing people I’ve met here,” Mirza says. — Robert Florida


Published Monday, May 15, 2017