Overcoming Obstacles – Dr. Emad Rahim

Dr. Rahim on the renovated Mawhinney Quad, which remains a memorable place for him from when he was a student.
Dr. Rahim on the renovated Mawhinney Quad, which remains a memorable place for him from when he was a student.

His life story could be a movie. Dr. Emad Rahim has overcome an unthinkable amount of turbulence and tragedy along with a significant learning disability. Today he’s a true success story thanks in large part to the role education played in his life.

Rahim was born in Cambodia where his family was forced into concentration camps. While there, his father was executed and his older brother died of starvation before family members were able to flee to a refugee camp in Thailand. They were granted asylum and found a new home in Brooklyn but violence remained a constant in their lives. While walking down the street Rahim suffered a gunshot wound to the leg. “It was like going from war zone to war zone. I was exposed to a lot of violence at a young age. It caused a lot of angst and unrest inside of me,” he said.

Rahim’s family moved to Syracuse and settled on the west side of the city where he attended Fowler High School. The constant chaos in his life had left him struggling academically. A school counselor named Willie Dowdell changed everything. Dowdell worked tirelessly with Rahim for two years so he could graduate in 1997. “He saved my life. Without his mentorship and guidance I would have been lost. At best I would have had a menial job. At worst I would have been incarcerated or dead.”

Dr. Rahim, with former EOP councilor Drake Harrison. Today, Harrison heads up the College's CSTEP Program.
Dr. Rahim, with former EOP councilor Drake Harrison. Today, Harrison heads up the College’s CSTEP Program.

After graduation Dowdell pushed Rahim to enroll at Onondaga Community College where his growth as a student continued. “OCC offered me intimate space where I was given the necessary support to succeed because the faculty knew the students on an individual basis. It supported my developing self-esteem.”

Despite his best effort coursework was still difficult for Rahim. By the time he got to Empire State College he was diagnosed with dyslexia. Suddenly a world of possibilities appeared in front of him. “For the first time in my life I knew what I had to do. All of my struggles were swept away.”

Rahim would earn a Doctorate in Management from Colorado Tech University. He continued his education at Tulane University, the University of Maryland and Harvard University. “For me Harvard was the impossible. Here was this refugee from Cambodia who barely graduated from high school and was now collaborating with some of the brightest academic minds in the world. It was amazing!”

Today, Rahim is an Endowed Chair and Director for the Project Center of Excellence at Bellevue University in Omaha, Nebraska. It’s a job he is able to work remotely from home, so home is now on the west side of Syracuse just a few blocks from where he grew up. “When we moved back we wanted to be part of the change in the community. We are looking to get involved and help nurture the city back to what it once was,” he said.

Nearly two decades after receiving his diploma at Fowler and enrolling at OCC, Rahim remains grateful to those who helped him achieve his potential. “Mr. Dowdell and my faculty and counselors at OCC could have given up on me several times. Instead they pushed me and have continued to stay in touch throughout my career. It’s why I am where I am. Now it’s my turn to give back.”

3 thoughts on “Overcoming Obstacles – Dr. Emad Rahim

  1. Emad, you offer a very insightful and moving reality of life. It is wonderful to hear how you have overcome so many hurdles in life that have made you stronger and yet more resilient. Great story.


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