Alumnus, Now Bound for Yale Law, Found a Refuge — and a Mission — in Education at RU

Thursday, July 13, 2017
Ahmad Maaz, '14, is about to start Yale Law School

For Ahmad Maaz, ’14, college education came at a turbulent time in his life.

In November 2008, Maaz’s family home in Kansas City was raided by agents of the federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency, who took his father away in handcuffs. It was the beginning of years living in a state of uncertainty, knowing that any day a knock on the door or a letter could change his and his family’s lives forever.

“It was tumultuous,” he said. “There were low points where I thought I was going to get deported and there were very high points where I thought I was going to get relief. I stuck with my education and eventually I found Rockhurst, and I became a person that went from searching for a safe place to advocating for and building one.”

Even considering that uncertainty, he said the chance to continue his education at Rockhurst University in some ways came at an extremely opportune time — it allowed him not only to find that refuge from the things happening to him, but it also led him down his current path.

In the fall, Maaz takes the next step on that path when he begins law school at Yale University. It might seem an odd move for a biology major. And Maaz admits that it was, though he adds that if it weren’t for where he was coming from, he might not be where he is. For that, he said, he is grateful for those who helped him find the direction.

“In life, you will have people who will speak for you, and then there are people who are allies who create the space and the platform to speak for yourself,” he said. “I was lucky to have those people in my life.”

In 1997, Maaz’s family moved to the United States from Pakistan on a visitor visa to get medical care for his brother’s heart condition. His father then attended Northwest Missouri State University and began to work at Sprint. In some ways, they settled into a familiar pattern as an American family — Ahmad and his siblings attended school. His father worked. His mother anchored the home.

Maaz said his father would lose his job in 2007 amidst the backdrop of the global economic crisis, and the family’s visa lapsed. Though his father would be released from ICE custody three months after his detainment, the family would spend approximately seven years knowing the life they had built could be torn apart at any time.

That precarious situation had a ripple effect throughout his life — his family’s undocumented status shut doors to many higher education institutions. Even something as simple as finding some volunteer work to bolster his medical school aspirations was difficult. Despite the upheaval in his own life, Maaz said he continued to look for ways to finish his bachelor’s degree after graduating from Metropolitan Community College’s Longview campus in 2010 as part of a dual credit program. By chance, he saw stories in the media about other undocumented students at Rockhurst speaking out for reform.

Maaz said he heard in the Jesuit core values a commitment to justice and the desire to make the world better for all people that resonated in him. He also threw himself into the opportunity to learn, seeing it as something of an escape of his family’s uncertain future and a chance to improve his condition and that of people around him.

“Education happened to be my stronghold,” he said. “In the real world, I couldn’t work, I couldn’t drive, I couldn’t even volunteer at places that would shun me for my undocumented status. But when I was at school, the only thing that mattered was my own abilities and how hard I worked to get the grades that I needed to get. In that sense, it was a place of equality.”

While attending Rockhurst, Maaz seized a new opportunity to make his voice heard when he was connected to a network of other undocumented activists advocating for immigration reform as part of the Kansas Missouri DREAM Alliance and eventually served as the organization’s executive director. For many undocumented people, Maaz said, living in the shadows is a way to avoid potential deportation. However, it also means those same people lose their chance to make their voice heard. With pending deportation already hanging over his head, Maaz said he instead found himself freed to speak up, bolstered by his newfound perspective.

“One thing I’ve learned in life is that we’re always vulnerable, no matter what situation we’re in,” he said.

Years after learning he might be eligible for legal immigration status, Maaz secured a green card and, after graduating from Rockhurst in 2014, Maaz started working at Stowers Institute for Medical Research — another opportunity that stemmed from faculty at Rockhurst.

He thanks faculty members like Elizabeth Evans, D.V.M., assistant professor of biology, who introduced him to methods of research in a course; and Laura Salem, Ph.D., associate professor of biology, for general guidance through his degree. He also remembers walking into the office of former associate professor of biology Mindy Walker, Ph.D., and asking about research opportunities.

“Despite meeting me for the first time and already working with two other students on independent projects, she unreservedly said yes,” he said.

That guidance and openness eventually led Maaz to present research during Rockhurst’s own Festival of Student Achievement and at the Missouri Academy of Science. Many of those same faculty also provided crucial support for him as he came to the realization that while he wanted to devote his life to helping people, it might not necessarily be as a physician.

“The world does need doctors, but I stepped back and I realized I wanted to tackle these big issues in the world and I just didn’t think I could do it in a hospital,” he said.

Once he decided that law school might be the avenue to create that change, Maaz began studying for the LSAT on his own and eventually applied to a host of different law schools, many of them considered the top programs in the country. Scheduled to start in the fall, he said he wants to wait to decide for sure what path he might want to take in the legal field. But no matter what he pursues, Maaz said he hopes that he can help people who were like him — yes, undocumented immigrants, but also anyone who feels that they don’t have a voice or don’t have a chance.