BY ALEX KEKAUOHA
When Azizjon Azimi graduated from New York University in 2016, he knew he was lucky. Most students in his home country of Tajikistan do not have the educational opportunities that he has had after coming to the United States as a teenager.
“What kind of use would they have made of those opportunities had they been in my place?” Azimi wondered.
The following year, Azimi launched TajRupt, a nonprofit venture pioneering development of critical thinking skills and civic engagement among the youth in Tajikistan. But to improve the organization and make it sustainable in a developing country, he needed guidance. In 2017, he enrolled in a dual MBA/MPA program at the Stanford Graduate School of Business and the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. At Stanford, Azimi is a member of the inaugural cohort of Knight-Hennessy Scholars (KHS), a community of future global leaders working to address complex challenges through collaboration and innovation.
Be ready to challenge yourself and in the process gain an insight that might improve you as a person and as a leader. –AZIZJON AZIMI MBA Candidate
Launched in 2016 by Nike founder and GSB alum Phil Knight and former Stanford president John Hennessy, the program is the largest fully endowed international scholarship program in the world. It offers students three years of funding for graduate study at Stanford in any field, as well as a host of programs and support for scholars to expand their knowledge, gain leadership skills and build relationships that will aid them in their lives and careers.
The first class of 51 scholars arrived in autumn 2018. They were joined by 68 scholars a year later. These two cohorts represent 32 countries and 73 undergraduate institutions. Scholars currently study in 53 degree programs across Stanford’s seven schools. KHS recently offered admission to its third cohort, which will enroll this autumn. The program will announce the final cohort in May after responses are due to the graduate programs.
In June, Azimi and some of his fellows scholars in the KHS program will graduate from Stanford, prepared to lead in everything from community health and government to business and computer science.
Each winter, a select group of applicants is introduced to the program through Immersion Weekend, which offers an opportunity to preview life as a Knight-Hennessy Scholar. The participants enjoy micro-versions of KHS’s leadership curriculum, connect with their fellow finalists and meet program staff and current scholars. That’s also when they undergo the interview process and tour Denning House, home of the KHS program. Azimi said the weekend was transformative.
“I remember that I felt very warm and very welcomed,” he said. “I knew from Immersion Weekend that this is a place where you can have big aspirations and create a plan to achieve them.”
Once committed to the program, scholars have access to personal and professional development opportunities. Past speakers, for instance, have included Oakland Mayor Libby Schaff; former president of Chile Michelle Bachelet; artist and MacArthur Award winner Trevor Paglen; CNN host Fareed Zakaria; documentary filmmaker Ken Burns; former U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice; YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki; former Indianapolis Colts quarterback Andrew Luck; former U.S. secretaries of defense William Perry and James Mattis; actress, comedian, author and entrepreneur Karith Foster; and former astronaut Ellen Ochoa. Stanford faculty that visited with scholars include Stanford Law School Dean Jenny Martinez; professor of computer science and codirector of HAI Fei Fei Li; professor of psychology Carol Dweck; and professor of history Caroline Winterer.
Building relationships is a major benefit of the program. Azimi, who grew up in the former Soviet Union, was surprised when he found a mentor in political scientist Michael McFaul, former ambassador to Russia and director of the Freeman Spogli Institute.
“He and I have met every quarter – sometimes a couple times each quarter – to talk about politics in Central Asia,” Azimi said. McFaul has helped him brainstorm ideas for improving TajRupt: “This year we’re getting a summer intern from Stanford thanks to the discussions I’ve had with the ambassador.”
KHS offers off-campus learning opportunities that give scholars leadership experience. Azimi recently attended an “impactathon” event in Monterey, where he collaborated with other scholars to design an app in one day using design-thinking methods. He has since incorporated those methods into the TajRupt curriculum, having students in Tajikistan embark on need-finding to design and implement local social impact projects. More recently, other scholars traveled to Iowa to observe a Democratic primary caucus and to Costa Rica last spring to study sustainability. Over spring break, Azimi plans to join fellow scholars to tour sites around the United States related to the civil rights movement. Each trip focuses on a contemporary leadership challenge.
KHS hosts numerous professional development programs, including one that invites experts in various fields to visit Denning House to support scholars in developing leadership skills. Azimi said he learned a lot from visiting expert and media personality Raymond Braun, who emphasized staying true to one’s personal mission on social media.
Scholars also enjoy experiential workshops focused on skill development, such as improvisational communication techniques or business and dining etiquette. Azimi recalls one workshop that taught scholars how to improve their storytelling abilities.
“The goal was to teach storytelling as a craft of self-discovery and reflection,” Azimi explained. “And as a way to find out what your true passions are deep inside by telling the stories that have shaped you.”
Azimi said the Knight-Hennessy Scholars program offers an introspective experience that pushes students to dig deep within themselves to improve how they approach their work and contribute to their fields. To anyone thinking about applying, Azimi urges them to be prepared to test preconceived notions they might have about leadership.
“Be ready to challenge yourself and in the process gain an insight that might improve you as a person and as a leader,” he said.
Azimi said the most impactful outcome of his journey as a Knight-Hennessy scholar has been developing and launching tajrupt.ai, the first machine learning lab in the Central Asian region. He has partnered with fellow Knight-Hennessy scholar Aadith Moorthy – a PhD candidate in materials science and engineering –to build an interdisciplinary machine learning curriculum that is currently being piloted in Tajikistan.
After graduating in June, Azimi will briefly return to Harvard for the final semester of his MPA. He then plans to return to Silicon Valley for a few years to build a for-profit venture while continuing to develop his organizational and leadership skills. He then intends to return to Tajikistan to further develop TajRupt and improve outcomes for the country’s youth.
What he’ll remember most about the Knight-Hennessy Scholars program is the supportive environment the program cultivates and the relationships – personal and professional – it enables for its scholars.
“You can come here and talk to your fellow scholars and get support and feel like you’re not alone in this,” he said. “And that feeling, I think, will be with me forever.”