The Johns Hopkins Gazette: May 19, 2003
May 19, 2003
VOL. 32, NO. 35


Lessons Learned Outside the Classroom

For many a senior, a JHU education brought unexpected rewards

By Amy Cowles

Johns Hopkins Gazette Online Edition

On Thursday, close to 1,300 seniors from Johns Hopkins University will cross a stage on Homewood Field to receive their diplomas, joining thousands of seniors across the country in celebrating the end of their undergraduate years and the beginning of a new chapter in their lives.

Along with degrees in everything from biomedical engineering to philosophy, many newly minted Johns Hopkins graduates will leave the university with more than just the lessons learned inside their classrooms. For them, a combination of classwork and real world experience gained through volunteer programs has prepared them for the world that awaits them.

Senior Babak Nazer says his experiences outside the classroom have broadened his horizons and helped him choose a career path. During his four years as an undergraduate on the Homewood campus, Nazer spent several hours each week helping people who needed him. He mentored Johns Hopkins freshmen trying to adjust to campus life, coached city middle schoolers who needed help sinking jumpshots, and hung out with children in need of a buddy while recuperating at the Johns Hopkins Children's Center. In recognition of his hard work in the service of others, Nazer has been awarded the Alexander K. Barton Cup, given each year to a senior who has most faithfully served the interests and ideals of the university and exemplifies Alexander Barton's strong character, high ideals and effective moral leadership.

Babak Nazer at the recreation center where he started a basketball league for fourth- and fifth-graders. His volunteer work with children led to his interest in medical school.

Now Nazer plans to turn his need to help others into a career in medicine. After commencement exercises on Thursday; he'll participate with other students in Hopkins 4K for Cancer, a cross-country bike trip to raise money for cancer research. Nazer's next stop is Harvard Medical School.

"I knew that I wanted to go into science and help people," said the 20-year-old biomedical engineering major from Bellevue, Wash. "But I didn't know I wanted to go into medicine until my junior year, when I started volunteering for the Child Life Department at the Johns Hopkins Children's Center." As a student volunteer in the Adolescent Medical/Surgical Unit, Nazer primarily worked with children between the ages of 12 and 18, said his supervisor, Tammy Patterson, a certified child life specialist in the Children's Center.

"He was the best volunteer I ever had," Patterson said. "Babak was a wonderful role model for a lot of the kids, especially the boys who may not have a lot of males to look up to."

Nazer's role at the Children's Center was to comfort children undergoing various medical treatments, entertaining them to take their minds off their illnesses. Patterson recalls one day when Nazer taught a boy to play a song on a keyboard by labeling the keys in the order in which they were to be played to create the melody. The teaching strategy was characteristic of Nazer's connection with the children, teaching them in a way that wasn't demeaning.

"Babak kept encouraging him and praising him until the patient was able to play it," Patterson said. "For that patient, it was such a self-esteem boosterŠ . He was good at reading people and knowing the best way to go about a situation. He wasn't afraid to be silly to make someone laugh or be serious if they needed to talk."

It's one of the many examples in Nazer's life where the young mentor's actions and choices have been shaped by his own mentors. In this case, it is Patterson who helped shape the direction of his life.

"She had a great deal to do with my decision to go to medical school," said Nazer, who was born in Iran and immigrated to the United States with his parents when he was 5. "[Patterson] taught me to be patient and that sometimes you just need to be there for your patients, taking your cues from them. Sometimes I'd just sit next to a kid's bed and wait for him to come around and start talking. She really taught me how to work with patients."

Before he joined the program at the Children Center, Nazer worked with city children through other mentoring programs offered through the university. After working with youngsters through the Partnership for Student Achievement Mentoring Program, Nazer realized that many Baltimore children didn't have any opportunities to participate in sports during the summer, when many kids had nothing to do or couldn't afford the programs that were available. So Nazer and his fraternity, Sigma Phi Epsilon, started a basketball league for girls and boys in the fourth and fifth grades. Today the league is run at the Roosevelt Recreation Center in Hampden by fraternity members who served as coaches last year.

Nazer turned his attention to incoming Johns Hopkins freshmen as well. During his first semester at Hopkins, Nazer said, he spent a lot of time in his dorm room doing homework, which, while necessary for getting through college, is only part of the experience, he said. When he started to branch out into campus life during the second semester of his freshman year, Nazer realized that he wanted to get involved with Orientation so future freshmen wouldn't make the same mistakes he had made. So Nazer and his fellow 2002 Orientation co-chair, Shelly Gopaul, revamped the core of the program to make it more engaging to incoming students.

At least one faculty member saw all of this coming. Ronald Fishbein, assistant dean of Preprofessional Programs, met Nazer even before he arrived as a freshman; Nazer was touring campus and happened to notice that the door to Fishbein's office was open, so he stopped in.

"He struck me even then as an extremely personable and vivacious individual," said Fishbein, a former Johns Hopkins surgeon. "As a freshman, he visited my office at the beginning of the second semester. I was really pleasantly surprised by his interests as well as his plans. He indicated that he wanted to study psychology in addition to biomedical engineering. He expressed an interest in becoming involved in the Child Life Program at Hopkins Hospital. My notes say "Keep a close eye on him" and "He is preparing himself well."

A year later, Nazer was maintaining a very high GPA while involving himself in a number of campus activities. "He was a fountain of great ideas for supporting the programs of the Preprofessional Advising Office," Fishbein said. "His academic performance, his contributions to the university campus and his service to the Baltimore community have been outstanding. I like to think of Babak as a model for the type of student that Hopkins prepares for the study and practice of medicine. He makes us extremely proud."