Interview With a Friend
Time to let someone else talk.
Hello all, since it’s a new year, I decided to add a new segment to the blog.
I’ve always been giving you my points of view on different issues, so today I’d like to give someone else a chance to talk.
I’m going to be speaking to a person I hope you all find as fascinating as I do. My friend, Azadeh Malekan.
Azadeh, or AZ as I call her, was my ASL teacher during my time at Nassau Community College, who then would privately tutor me after I graduated. But, she does so much more.
AZ is a very interesting person, and someone that I enjoy speaking to, whenever I’m lucky enough to get the opportunity. I feel like there’s no one better to start this interview segment of my blog than with her.
So, without further ado, my exclusive interview with AZ:
Hey AZ, how are you?
Hey Mike! I’m doing well. Healthy which is all I can ask for now. Great to connect with you - as always. Thanks for carving out the time to chat with me.
A great place to start would be to tell everyone a little about yourself.
Sure. I was born in Iran and immigrated to the United States as a young child. I have always been fascinated by languages - as my native language is Farsi. Speaking them, writing them, signing them - it’s always been joyful to find nuanced ways to express myself. (perhaps that's why I love dancing so much - it's quite expressive) I took French in high school and lived in Paris for a summer which was a magnificent and immersive experience. I love to learn about people - their stories, who they are at their essence. I’m an eternal seeker of meanings and self-betterment, so I’ve spent most of my adult life taking classes, workshops in the personal development and healing space. I got married a year before the pandemic and my husband and I showcased quotes from our favorite writers throughout the reception and at each table. I am psychologically minded and some would say an old-soul. I love to imbue my life with depth - it makes life more meaningful. Did I go on a tangent here? :) I’m grateful to be chatting with you!
No not at all, I didn’t know a lot of that, so it’s really cool to hear. How do you get into ASL?
Interestingly enough, ASL found me. It’s one of those things I didn’t plan for. I always wanted to be a writer - but as we know life has its own plans and I ended up landing my first job during college at an art gallery showcasing works for d/Deaf and hard-of-hearing artists. I loved the work (I took ASL as an elective in high school for fun) and my subsequent job was developing technologies for the deaf, then after that, being an Interpreter Coordinator. I so enjoyed language, culture, and the Deaf Community but I didn't particularly enjoy the corporate world. So I thought - what’s the intersection of ASL and connecting with people? Teaching came to mind! I enrolled in the Teaching ASL Program at Columbia University and started the gratifying career of academia in 2011. Since then, it’s been a fulfilling career. I’ve had the opportunity to work at roughly 6 Colleges/Universities and meet a myriad of interesting people. Sharing the language with others is gratifying as is spreading awareness about the Deaf Community. ASL is immensely advantageous to know - because it's prevalent in the US and parts of Canada. Every person will likely interact with a deaf individual and how amazing would it be if we could all communicate with them? Their culture is enriching and I have Deaf mentors who have supported my foray into ASL and ASL education.
Did you have any influences?
Absolutely. I would say I have two main influences and probably dozens of others. Earlier, I shared that my first job in college was at an art gallery, we invited a Deaf scholar and professor, Russel Rosen (aka Rusty) to give a lecture on Deaf Arts and Literature - as he had published a book and done impressive research on the topic. He was such a nice man and incredibly intelligent. After his lecture, he gave me his card and told me he runs the Master’s Program in Teaching ASL as a Foreign Language program at Columbia University. He told me to consider it - and I politely took the card - not thinking anything of it. That card was left in my pants pocket. 3 years later I found the card and reached out to him to set up a meeting. I then applied to that program and he was my Professor and Mentor throughout and subsequent to my graduation. He has been a source of constant support and direction throughout the years. He inspires me and attended my wedding!
My other influence is the special human who inspired me to become an ASL teacher and helped shape me as an educator. Her name is Carole Lazorisak. She is a revered Deaf scholar and I took classes with her at LaGuardia Community College - at a time where she ran their Deaf Studies program. She then took me under her wing to become a TA and ultimately, a Professor at the same school. Her knowledge of ASL Linguistics is beyond impressive. She cares, deeply, for all of her students and I’m so indebted to her. In fact, I thanked her in my Master’s thesis because I wouldn’t be here without her mentorship and belief in me. She, too, attended my wedding!
How does your work incorporate educating young people about the Deaf Community, and Culture?
As a hearing individual, I am an ally to educate those around about the beautiful Deaf Culture and Community. It’s imperative in my teachings to share that ASL is not just a language - but used amongst this Community. I include it as part of my lesson plans, curricula and assign students to attend Deaf Cultural Events where they would meet and ultimately converse with individuals from this Community. Pre-Covid, I would attend these events alongside them. It is such an integral part of my work -spreading awareness about Deaf Culture and Community.
Why do you feel that's so important?
ASL is more than just a language - as I stated above. It’s used by most signing individuals in the US and parts of Canada. It’s important for people to learn the facets of ASL - one of the most important being whom it belongs to - the American Deaf Community.
According to a study by Gallaudet University, “ASL is not a course taught in many schools.” Have you found this to be true and if so, why do you think that is, and do you think there is any way to change that?
I believe that every school should offer ASL. I will say that in Long Island and New York particularly, ASL is offered as a foreign language at many high schools. Across the country, several colleges and universities offer ASL as an elective or minor/major course of study. It is beginning to be recognized as an approved language in higher education - as students are showing great interest in learning it. Particularly those that are visual processors. In the year 2000 when I was taking ASL in high school, my school was one of the few to offer it. Now, it is growing in popularity and also, necessity. My hope is that one day it is offered to every student at every school in America. We still have a long way to go - but we’re moving in a positive direction.
I want to change the subject for just a second. I know that you are also involved in something called “Mindful Education”? Would you mind telling us more about that?
Certainly. Because my perspective of education is more holistic in nature - meaning, I don’t believe the function of education is to regurgitate information and hope students absorb it. Rather, I believe in fostering connections with incredible human beings as they navigate the path of their life. And because of this human component, varying emotions, life experiences, and even traumas are brought into the classroom. Thus, I try to connect with my students and approach my classroom with mindfulness - simply put, with awareness. With this awareness of stress levels or emotions, I infuse my lessons with mindful exercises such as breathing techniques, balancing postures, fun brain activities, laughter, and most importantly, holistic presence. This engenders a feeling of comfort amongst my students. When this comfort is achieved, students can learn with more ease and openness. My passion is for each of my students to see their strengths and through mindfulness in the classroom, my hope is they can approach learning about ASL and ultimately themselves with a genuine curiosity that they can utilize into their lives.
What is it you most hope to gain from this work?
I believe mindfulness should be a tool given to each student and human being to navigate the journey of learning and growth. For me, personally, it gives me the tools to navigate a position of leadership and education from a place of presence. The field of education is rapidly changing - and I have come to realize that a holistic, inclusive educational model can profoundly change students’ perceived self-efficacy and success. Students mirror the energy and demeanor of their teachers, it is essential that we equip our tools to better our classroom. With this in mind, I envision a future in which educational professionals can change the lives of students, but also dare to change themselves.
I know that you also work on coaching, where you support people through challenges. Could you talk to us a little more about that?
Coaching people through life’s challenges has been my natural instinct since middle school. People would tell me their adolescent hurdles and I would listen - asking them questions to help their quest for an answer. Work with adults is just the same - supporting them to be in alignment with their true nature to achieve personal/professional/relationship/financial goals. Essentially, supporting them in getting out of their own way. And coaching isn’t advice or therapy - it’s a soundboard, a person who will hold you accountable, ask powerful questions to help you get to the answers you need to move forward in a particular area of your life. It’s future oriented - implementing action steps to get desired results. It’s such a passion of mine. My mission is to help human beings unveil their power in their authentic expression. In 2016 I became certified as a life coach through an International Coaching Federation (ICF) accredited training. Since then, I have trained people in areas of financial growth, transitioning careers, relationship challenges, healing traumas, strained family relationships, energy work and so much more. My intention is to help heal our planet - one human at a time.
How did you get into it?
I’ve always been psychologically minded and a seeker. My whole life people have shared that my empathic yet firm temperament has helped them get through difficult times. I have also greatly struggled with anxiety and depression since childhood - and went on a journey to help heal myself dabbling in every eastern and western healing modality. Fostering awareness of mental health is part of why I feel so connected to my students in the classroom and my clients in my coaching session. I so badly want people to feel their power - because I know how debilitating life can be when we navigate from a place of pain. I suppose I got into it because I was determined to translate my mess into my message. I think pain is the greatest teacher - if we choose to perceive it that way.
How would you say you incorporate that into your teaching?
Being a good teacher is essentially serving as a mentor/coach to your students. I find that because I make my classroom a safe place to open up, show up as you are, my students tend to confide in me about real things going on in their life. In fact, you and I have had some great life discussions in our ASL class! And we’ve had other students in our class join our real-talk, which always is something I look forward to. I’m so grateful that students come to me for support (outside of the subject area) . That's what I believe shapes the efficacy of learning - real connection. So there are much parallels between being a teacher and being a coach - and I love exploring that intersection.
You mentioned above, and you and I have also spoken about your interest in writing. What have you been able to work on lately?
Writing is a passion of mine. I actually went to college with the intention of being a writer - and later realized it's more a creative pursuit. I have started a memoir of my life - depicting the struggles of immigrant life in a new world yet with the support of an overwhelmingly loving family. I like to write about my past and childhood because I get to remember my father - whom I lost when I was 19. So, writing about it is a poignant way to remember my past. Because I am an adjunct at so many schools, balancing coaching and consulting work, I don’t get to write as often as I want. Yet, it's such a passion of mine. I have said that quite a bit throughout this interview. I have so many passions - ha!
You work in academia, you’re a writer, and now you’re doing coaching work. Clearly, you’re an entrepreneur. What is that life like?
It’s so much fun. I am blessed because I am constantly engaged in my work and get the opportunity to create, support, help, grow and learn about the wondrous experience of being human. I love the flexibility of being an entrepreneur - setting my own hours and being somewhat of my own boss. It’s exhilarating, infuses me with purpose and is an inspired life. It keeps my creativity flowing, and helps me endure life’s ebbs and flows with the deep knowing that I am leaving my little imprint on our humanity working in different sectors.
I also get to meet such interesting people whom I cultivate great friendships with - you being one of them. Because of ASL, and our mutual interests in writing and exploring a creative path we have been able to create a sustained friendship. That is one of the best parts of the work that I do - getting to meet such amazing human beings bonded by a mutual desire to learn a language and grow.
Finally, I guess the basic question to ask is, what advice would you give people who want to do what you do?
The coach in me believes that people have their own answers. So, I would tell them to ask themselves - how do they want to fill their life? Whom do they want to serve? What makes them feel alive? And then, carve out small action steps each day to get there. I don’t believe in making extreme goals because our human conditioning gets in the way. Instead, if someone wanted to be a coach I would encourage them to do one thing everyday to bring them closer to that goal. Similarly, if you want to be an ASL educator, I would advise them to set aside time every week - picking 3 days to practice videos and find (virtual - for now) events to immerse with the Deaf Community. For anyone looking to be an entrepreneur, I would advise them to explore what they’re good at, and how they can make money doing it. Really, just having an honest conversation with yourself. And of course, if people need more support, they’re welcome to reach out to me and I am happy to coach them! :)
AZ, thank you so much for doing this, and I hope we can get together soon.
You’re welcome, Mike. Thank you so much for reaching out to me and doing this. I always enjoy our discussions and look forward to signing/chatting and catching up very soon. Keep doing what you’re doing - I read your blogs every week and look forward to your interesting perspectives!
In case you want to learn more about AZ, and the works she does, you can check her out anytime you like in the links below:
https://lingua-guru.com & AtoZmindfuleducation.com
I hope you all enjoyed my first interview, more to come.