The Syrian-born researcher has earned master’s and doctoral degrees during a life-changing six-year odyssey.
First impressions get a lot of attention, and Hasan Almekdash certainly is fond of the first few glimpses he got of Texas Tech University a little more than six years ago.
Since that first blush, there have been a constant parade of favorable impressions by Texas Tech and the Lubbock community, which help explain why Almekdash has found a second home.
A Syrian native, Almekdash earned his master's degree in applied linguistics from a university and in a city that he came to without a whole lot of knowledge about either. His studies along that path, coupled with a strong network of friends, created such a strong connection that Almekdash and his wife Rana decided to stick around.
Later this month, Almekdash will receive his doctorate in higher education research, a journey that began by arriving in Lubbock and at Texas Tech sight unseen in 2012.
Now, with two children added to the equation – Almekdash smiles when he reports that his older daughter proudly touts her status as an American citizen – one of the brightest shining stars in Texas Tech's Office of International Affairs has a second place to call home.
“I love Syria and always will; it is my home country,” Almekdash said. “But in reality, what I have done here in six years is more than what I did in 32 years back home, so these are the richest six years of my life. Texas Tech and Lubbock are my second home. We are part of the community and I cherish the opportunities I have received here.”
Not exactly as seen on TV
Almekdash was born and grew up in Al-Tal, Syria, a northern suburb of Damascus, and earned an undergraduate degree at the University of Damascus.
Like many Syrians in his generation, Almekdash harbored dreams of migrating to the United States. In fact, Almekdash developed a modernly influenced pre-conceived notion.
“Do you remember that show Dallas?” Almekdash said with a smile. “I watched that when I was a kid back home, so I had no problem coming to Texas at all. Texas in the Middle East is like the real America. That's how people view it – where you have the cowboys and an adventurous spirit.
“Coming to the United States was always a dream. This is the country of ‘all men are created equal.' A lot of people here don't perceive how people think of America outside because they see protests on TV and believe everybody feels that way. Scientists in many Middle Eastern countries don't have the infrastructure to do the great research you can do in the United States.”
Which is at the core of why Almekdash has found such a comfortable fit at Texas Tech and in Lubbock.
Welcoming windows of opportunity
Before making the life-redirecting decision to pull up roots in Syria and head to the U.S., Almekdash mapped out how to fit what he wanted to learn at Texas Tech and how he would apply his research to his career.
As valuable as those plans proved to be, stepping on the Texas Tech campus and realizing the myriad opportunities at his fingertips was a pleasant surprise.
Yes, Almekdash knew there would be different avenues to learn in the U.S. Finding such a wide-open and inviting array of opportunities was a refreshing revelation.
“I had a friend who came here and said a lot of positive things about the United States in general and Texas Tech in particular,” Almekdash said. “I looked into their faculty profiles and what type of research they do, and that got me really interested. I wanted the university to match my interests. I was a second-language teacher, so the applied linguistics program at Texas Tech was very much about teaching languages.
“While I was working on my master's, I discovered the potential of quantitative research methods. I was introduced to statistics and quantitative analyses and liked it a lot. Being in the United States, you have the freedom to always change what you have done. I love teaching and I love languages, but I didn't have the opportunity back home to see what you could do with data – to see how you could affect data-driven policy analysis. I found all of that in the United States and at Texas Tech. I decided to pursue a PhD in higher education research focused on quantitative analysis.”
In the process, Almekdash emerged as an academic star on a variety of fronts at Texas Tech: A leader among his international student peers as well in the Graduate School.
“It took most of his four years [pursuing a master's degree] to understand how diverse his intellectual interests and abilities truly are,” said Paton, now a professor and senior vice provost of academic affairs at Texas Tech Health Sciences Center in El Paso. “I wasn't sure how accomplished he was in terms of quantitative analysis at first, but once he started talking about how to use Geographical Information Sciences (GIS), I thought it was fascinating and would be fantastic way to approach higher education data.”
Almekdash's dissertation research utilizes K-12, higher education, U.S. Department of Education, geographical and census data to analyze the variables that impact students' trajectories from an independent school district to four-year college completion in the state of Texas.
Keys to work and to success
Most people don't think much of the keys they carry in their pocket. To Almekdash, though, the small crafted pieces of metal are symbolic.
Merriam-Webster.com offers several definitions of the word key. The two that might mean the most to Almekdash are 1) a means of gaining or preventing entrance, possession, or control. 2) Something that gives an explanation or identification or provides a solution.
Control and identification. Before Almekdash got to Texas Tech, those were not concepts he could count on to complete his research.
Once he was established here, Almekdash was given keys to his office as well as the building where he does his research. Trivial? Not so much for Almekdash.
“These represent how willing people at Texas Tech are to help me,” Almekdash said, dangling a set of keys in front of him. “At Damascus University, things weren't like that at all. What makes it so special here is that people are very warm and supportive. I believe this is the country of individualism, so you are judged based on your own merits and personal characteristics, and that is deeply rooted in the culture of the United States. Most people will judge you based on who you are and not based on what they read in the news.”
Strong support system
To help his academic journey succeed, Almekdash required a framework of encouragement and support. The strong academic network Texas Tech provided was a perfect fit.
Along with Paton, a who's-who of advisers and professors supported Almekdash through the GIS-Higher Education dissertation process: Guofeng Cao, Lucia Barbato and Marcelo Schmitt were three of his biggest influences and sounding boards.
As relationships evolved with so many who had previously walked in Almekdash's shoes, he found a comfort zone to explore the research he believed was important.
“I have the opportunity to work on major research projects here,” Almekdash said. “You have the freedom to access data and to ask critical questions. The university is open to you, and that means a lot. You feel you're an owner, part of the system. You participate in the system, you take from the system, you don't feel like you're an outsider.”
As Almekdash worked toward his doctoral degree, his research drew attention around the state.
He was recognized by Educate Texas, a public/private educational initiative by Communities Foundation of Texas to improve higher education around the state, for his work on data analysis and evaluation.
“His dissertation research accomplished something that had never been accomplished in this state,” Paton said. “He was able to build a huge and important data set in which student success can be tracked from kindergarten through a four-year baccalaureate degree.”
Just another accomplishment on an incredible journey that is far from finished.
Almekdash's roots at Texas Tech have grown deep enough that he would like to remain here as a professor to continue teaching research. He and his family have connected with the Syrian-American community in Lubbock, even surviving a humorous miscommunication early on.
“People here are great,” Almekdash said. “The first question I asked my neighbor when we got here was ‘Where is the best burger in town?' and he said ‘The house next door.' I thought that was the name of restaurant, but finally discovered he was actually inviting me over for a barbecue.
“I feel I am part of this community. You can get engaged in building the community, participating in many aspects. I've never felt like I don't belong. You can have an argument and disagree on a lot of issues politically with friends, but at the end of the day there is reason, there is love, there is support. Personally, I've never encountered anything negative.”
It's no surprise to Paton that Almekdash has been embraced. She noted that his thirst for knowledge of different world cultures, a background as the son of a literature professor and a tilt toward being a Renaissance man who plays the violin and speaks several languages give Almekdash a sort of Pied Piper personality.
“He is very highly esteemed, both at Texas Tech and in the community,” Paton said. “He is so global in his approach to living and at Texas Tech, he found a place that was inclusive, welcomes him and has celebrated him for his global knowledge. By his words, as well as his actions and accomplishments, he has been a great champion of the opportunities that Texas Tech has opened up for him.”
No argument from Almekdash.
“The environment here at Texas Tech has been very supportive,” he said. “Texas Tech is simply awesome.”