May 5, 2011

Commencement 2011: McMullan Award

Creative, courageous leadership defines Noor Najafi's college career

Noor Najafi

Graduating senior Noor Najafi is the recipient of the 2011 Lucius Lamar McMullan Award, one of Emory's highest student honors which also comes with $20,000 —no strings attached. The McMullan Award, endowed by Emory alumnus William L. Matheson in honor of his uncle, is given to a graduating senior who exhibits "outstanding citizenship, exceptional leadership and rare potential for service to his or her community, the nation and the world."

Najafi was cited by several nominators as an exceptionally innovative and creative leader and scholar. With a near-perfect 3.9 GPA in Emory College, the religion major has taken part in undergraduate research with religion professor Richard Martin, and law professor Martha Duncan. He is the recipient of the Robert Woodruff Scholarship, Emory's highest merit award, and has been inducted into Phi Beta Kappa and other honor societies.

These achievements only tell part of the story.

Najafi came to college seeking to challenge and expand his worldview. As the son of Muslim refugees from Afghanistan, he was struggling with questions about his identity, faith and family, and how to move beyond feeling like an outsider.

"Emory gave me the space to be me, and to come out of my shell to help others," he says.

Healing and empowering

His own experiences have led him to be passionate about social justice, and an unwavering advocate for greater intercultural and interfaith understanding. "I've really sought to create opportunities where none existed, to empower the disempowered, and to transform and heal the wounds caused by intolerance, homophobia, hate, prejudice, discrimination and ignorance," he says.

One of his nominators noted that throughout his college career, Najafi "has taken leadership where there is no pre-made path, no position to be elected to, or ready-made audience ready to cheer him on."

This leadership has included establishing an organization to reduce the stigma about mental health and founding a Quran/Bible study group for Christians and Muslims.

Najafi also organized the monthly Cafe Unity, a popular event for creative performances on campus, and co-founded Sacred Artistry to provide an outlet for the Emory community to explore how spirituality and art give meaning to life. He served as a member of the Inter-religious Council and co-founded the Emory Meditation Student Group to explore practices from different traditions. He volunteered regularly at the International Community School and Refugee Family Services in Atlanta, serving as a tutor, interpreter and community resource.

Paving the way

And he's done it all while managing a chronic illness, Crohn's Disease, that he has not allowed to diminish his life. In addition, Najafi has worked two part-time jobs for the majority of his college career—one in the Computing Center at Cox Hall and the other in the Office of Religious Life.

"I hope that in my commitment to social justice, multiculturalism, and interfaith and artistic initiatives on campus, I have helped create new doors for future student scholar-activists and leaders on campus and paved the way for exciting new developments to come," Najafi says. "I felt deeply touched, exhilarated, humbled and grateful all in the same breath to be so recognized and honored with the McMullan Award."

As part of that commitment to transform and heal others, Najafi plans to pursue a master's degree in psychology and counseling to become a practicing psychotherapist, and then continue with doctoral work. He hopes to do a combination of clinical work, research and teaching in the future with an integrated and inclusive approach to health and healing, "not limited to biological frameworks but include spiritual, psychological and social dimensions and aspects in this important conversation."

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