From Kabul To Nyenrode: A Former Refugee’s Journey To A Business Career

Elyas Razawi at Nyenrode

Elyas Razawi, center, poses with other students from IMC WeekendSchool during his first trips to Nyenrode Business University in July 2012. As a WeekendSchool partner, Nyernrode hosted several events and gave Razawi his first exposure to a business education.

So your mom’s emphasis on education came from her not being able to get one herself?

For sure, because I didn’t even want to study at first. I wanted to first try my chances with finding new jobs because I really didn’t know what I wanted to study initially. Then, I wanted to study medicine, then dentistry.

But right before I enrolled in dentistry, I started this program (IMC WeekendSchool) and some events were hosted at a private university in the Netherlands, Nyenrode Business University. I thought, okay, business is perhaps something I might like to study. In business, most opportunities are still left out on the table. It’s not specific at all, so you could still do almost anything. That was a good call, I think for me, and I just wanted that challenge: It’s a private school, and it would be difficult for somebody from my background to make it. So, I said, “Well let me see how far I’ll get.”

What about business was so intriguing to you?

IMC WeekendSchool, I think, is one of the best organizations in the Netherlands, and I was and still am a big-time ambassador for them. It’s literally children going to the school from ages 9 to 11 on Sundays, just going to see different jobs — judge, doctor, lawyer, architects, business salesperson, whatever. Every four weeks, you have different blocks. You learn about medicine and you visit a surgeon and then a doctor, and so on. You learn about law and you visit a judge and a lawyer. And that keeps on going like that.

Afterwards, there is an alumni program where you can attend workshops and different types of programs. One of the programs was called the ambassador’s program where you learned diplomacy, teamwork, and presenting. Presenting is my number one passion, and I had to do a group presentation at Nyenrode. The dean saw me and asked, “You like business, you are good at presenting, the people loved it, why don’t you study here?” That’s when I thought, well, maybe.

I like having a lot of diversity in what I do. For a while, dentistry was one of my dreams too. I have a picture of me working on somebody’s braces during my internship at the orthodontist. But I had a feeling that it was going to be very repetitive at some point because it’s doing one thing forever. There’s not much diversity. The most you would do is to have your own practice or have multiple practices if you’re doing very well.

There was one point when I had an internship in dentistry, and I almost fell asleep during one of the operations. And I thought, if it already feels this repetitive, then it’s probably not something for me for the rest of my life. At least in business, if one thing doesn’t work, I can still bounce to the next thing.

I also read that your mother was a little apprehensive of your switch from dentistry because you had kind of mapped out a plan for life-based on that?

Yeah, for sure. Because there was the potential risk of coming out with a lot of financial debt going to a private university rather than a public university. She was kind of scared not only for the financial picture but also because of the people that would go there and that I might not fit in or that I might have a difficult time because of my background.

On top of that, when I place myself in her shoes, I completely understand. The path of dentistry was clear and had little risk. My dentist even offered to help me and give me a place to work for my internships and perhaps the start of my career. The path of going to a private university without the required funding is much more risky and vague. What would I do? Where would the money come from and at what “real cost?” Was I setting myself up for a lot of stress and high expectations that might not be realistic? Looking at the situation from that angle, I completely understand and respect her opinion. Nevertheless, I was planning to do something exceptional at the time and I wanted to show it to myself that I could do it. I still have a few passion projects hidden under my sleeve and I hope that I can realize the others just as I did with the last two. If not then I will probably find something new to chase.

The castle of Nyenrode Business University in Amsterdam.

The castle of Nyenrode Business University in Amsterdam.

So, I understand that you went out and secured scholarships and funding to attend Nyenrode. How did you find the adjustment once you got there?

Academically, it was really good. I really enjoyed it because I’m very keen on learning and curious. Most of the teachers, especially the private lectures from their own respective fields within their business. I would ask them for a card or a LinkedIn, whatever, and then I had multiple questions afterwards. That was something that really stimulated me, and I was very glad for all of the hands-on practice also.

Student life was more challenging because of the difference in values. The typical business student is outgoing, has a lot of fun, and is very well-spoken. And so, sometimes it feels like working smart and having fun is the opposite to having curiosity and learning the essence of a subject. Everyone who has been in a class with me knows that I am on the edge of my seat and eager to know everything because I want to know everything, I care a lot about my development.

But for the average student, it is more of a chore, something that needs to be done to get a job. That was the attitude that did bother me during class. It was also something that I tried to avoid during my entire academic career, I tried to stay hungry and learn as much as possible at all times. It might be because it was my obligation to not disappoint my investors, my friends and my mom. It was also how I identified myself, I was the kid that cared a lot about his development and tried hard. I am proud of that.

So, you graduated from Nyenrode in June with a BSc in Business Administration. What are you doing now?

I’m studying for the International Master in Management of IT at Tilburg University.

I really wanted the international experience because I couldn’t do that because of COVID. I was supposed to go to Australia but that was not possible. Then I found this triple master degree in the Netherlands where I could go to France, Finland and then back to the Netherlands. I saw this program and it was a way I could do a very technical IT master’s degree with my background because I don’t have as much mathematical experience.

I just had one of the best four months of my life in France, because I met a lot of new people. Now I’m here in Finland, and just really discovering this university and all the IT courses.

How proud is your mother now, seeing you secure your funding, graduating from Nyenrode, and now working on this master’s degree?

She’s very proud, and she’s also very glad that I’m not under any financial burden. I myself I’m very glad.

My graduation speech was centered around my mom. I thanked my investors, my teachers, my friends, and most of all my mother. Since she is the strongest person I know and has sacrificed everything for us to rebuild our lives in the Netherlands successfully.

At that moment on the stage, I said that I know that we officially did do that and that I would like to remind everyone that I was not one of the lucky refugees that made it out of Afghanistan. There was no luck, I happen to have an amazing and strong mother who made it happen and this, getting a degree and continuing to do my best for my career, is just me playing my part. I ended it by telling her how proud I am of her and that I am glad to make her proud and finish her dream today.

Yes she cried, and there was something in my eye at the end too.

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