April 29, 2012

Peggy's Progress
        (Not to be confused with John Bunyan's tale of agony and doom!)

Over breakfast last week, the Afghan Ambassador to the United States, Eklil Hakimi and I were discussing the climate in Washington and Kabul. Well, okay truth be told, it wasn’t a conversation about the geopolitical climate, but more at the level of how’s the weather in Kabul compared to D.C.? Although I was curious to know what he thought about our President Obama I didn’t even begin to know what to say about his boss and President Hamid Karzai. And while we were indeed eating at the same time, it was only by chance that the Ambassador just happened to sit at the same table during the pre-investiture breakfast for the new President of San Jose State University. The Ambassador and I were both there to celebrate the inauguration of Dr. Mohammad Qayoumi as the 28th President of San Jose State University (SJSU). As he told somebody while introducing me, Mo and I first worked together 25 YEARS AGO when he was my boss at SJSU! Turns out Mo is the first Afghan American to be appointed as President of a major American university.

Lest this be solely an exercise in shameless name-dropping, I bring Mo up to share with you a remarkable story about a remarkable man. In his inaugural address, Mo said of his becoming University President, that

"It strengthens my belief that our great nation is truly a land of opportunity. For where else can the son of a carpenter with only an elementary school education from a war stricken country like Afghanistan become the president of this historic and vibrant university?"

Seeing Mo so exultant and energized in his new role, I was struck by the fact that 25 years after I worked with him, he has an even greater passion for higher education and the role it can play in our lives and communities. His siblings include doctors, and a classical violinist and his wife is a clinical dietician and well-known Persian poet. For him and his family, education was not only a way out of the chaos and strife in their own country but each has achieved great success in their chosen fields here in the U.S. I don’t think he sees himself as remarkable and he is genuinely humble about his life story. He says this is the story of so many American families.

Those of us who worked with him knew he wanted to be a University President someday. He not only achieved his goal but he’s incredibly skilled and successful at his job and also as a leader in Silicon Valley, the Afghan American community and with his involvement in bridging US-Afghan relations. What I admire most about Mo is not simply his accomplishments, but his deep, visible passion for what he does. As Ken Robinson would say, he is truly in his “element.” (If you don’t know what I’m referring to here you can go back to my November 27 article.)

In his inaugural speech Mo talked about the challenge to universities everywhere and to society in general where technology rules, and in which:

"Roughly 30 billion pieces of content were added to Facebook in just one month.
More than 32 billion searches were done on Twitter in a month.
The average teenager sends more than 4,700 text messages per month.
And more than two billion videos are watched on YouTube on a daily basis."

What was encouraging to me was that as much as Mo is a product and an advocate for advanced learning and teaching in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (known collectively in academia as STEM) he is a staunch believer in a true liberal arts education and believes that

"Art enables us to escape the limitations in nature and empowers us to seek change through our imagination. . . Art is our fingerprint in the world. Art connects humans with their humanity."

And this from an engineer with a bachelors, two masters degrees and a doctorate in engineering (oh and just for kicks an MBA). And it was Mo’s own imagination that enabled him to see beyond the obstacles in his native Afghanistan and that led him to the American University in Beirut, then on to this country.

As I was sitting there listening to Mo recount those staggering statistics about how technology pervades modern life and the lives of most young people it reminded me of another remarkable person. He’s someone I don’t know personally and I only came to know of him via Facebook and YouTube. (Yes, I’m just another statistic too).

By now most or all of you have heard of or seen Caine Monroy, the 9-year old mastermind of Caine’s Arcade. It’s a homemade, cardboard and packing tape maze of arcade games that Caine built last summer in his Dad’s auto parts store. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, you really do need to take a moment now to watch the video of this wonderfully inventive kid. The video went viral on the internet and brings both smiles and tears to viewers. But what is it that struck us all about this story, and this child? And why are we so captivated by it?

First of all, there is no denying that Caine is adorable, with sparkling eyes and a glowing smile. But there’s more to it than his sweet face and charm. In part Caine’s story represents childhood the way it used to be, before video games and the endless string of organized childhood activities, from dance to gymnastics, martial arts, music lessons, softball, soccer and all the rest. And more than simply nostalgia for a simpler, slower time, there is a genuine sense of relief that here is human living proof that despite the statistics that Mo cited, young people can do more than only text or sit in front of YouTube and video games.

More powerful than any of that, however, is that Caine’s story is a celebration of innovation, creativity and the imagination. Spending his summer in his Dad’s auto parts store while his Mom worked, this kid took his boredom and created a masterpiece. A true artist, Caine persevered with his labor of love even when he had no customers. As his story unfolds we are amazed at his resourcefulness, cleverness and razor sharp imagination in devising the arcade so that it works, even down to the small details. We watched with a sense of awe when he taped calculators to the front of games to generate security codes for “fun pass” holders and how prize tickets are spit out from the machine to reward winning game scores.

Simply put, it is inspiring to see Caine at work. He had a vision for an arcade and he went about making it real. He gets one clever idea after another to tinker with and expand his arcade. We watch him scrounge up cardboard boxes from his Dad’s shop to make something that works with his own hands. It’s so simple, so beautiful and such a basic idea. Like I said, watching the video makes you cry and smile all at the same time. Caine has talent and creativity that inspire us all. As a result there has been an outpouring of donations to a scholarship fund for Caine that has exceeded his family’s wildest dreams.

After Mo’s inaugural festivities a bunch of us who worked with him went out to share old times over lunch. (Yes it was an all day eating kind of thing.) We had a lot of catching up to do since most of us hadn’t seen each other in 20-something years. And of course we all talked about our kids. One friend tells us of a daughter who is delightful, happy and heading to college in the Fall. The subject turns to her 14-year old son and she kind of throws up her hands. She tells the story of one day when she came home from work only to find her son in the backyard shooting potatoes at the back fence from some contraption he made. Apparently his air gun worked so well he knocked over the back fence. We all got a chuckle but it sounded to me like he’s a bit bored. I told her maybe he needs to build things! Gadgets, contraptions, and things. I didn’t think of it then but I’m going to send her a link so she and her son can watch Caine’s video—I think her son could use a bit of that Caine magic. We all could.

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Peggy Sonoda

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