WMU-Cooley student Mohamed Fawaz earns Outstanding Adult Learner award



by Cynthia Price
Legal News

Mohamed Fawaz is his own person, and his strong determination, hard work, compassion and intellectual curiosity make coming into contact with him an extraordinary experience.

As Professor Christopher Hastings of WMU-Cooley Law School, who nominated Fawaz for the Outstanding Adult Learner award given by Grand Rapids Area Higher Education Network (GRAHEN), says, “Mohamed is a great inspiration to me because his spirit is so resilient.”

GRAHEN chose Fawaz as the 2015 recipient of the award, which is given to a deserving adult learner “who has demonstrated leadership both in the classroom and the community,” from a pool of nominations by GRAHEN’s 11 higher learning institutions members.

The non-profit organization, founded in 1997, exists to create awareness about lifelong learning opportunities for adults in Greater Grand Rapids; its members, all of which offer degree-granting programs for adults, include Aquinas College, Grand Valley State University, Grand Rapids Community College, and Central Michigan University’s Global Campus, among others.

But if you ask Fawaz, he  says with characteristic candor, “Honestly speaking, I don’t think I’m qualified for it. I told them there are other people who are more qualified for this because... well, I guess I have very high standards for myself. But it felt like what I’m doing is appreciated, and I’m thankful for that.”

Fawaz is blind, and he has only been in this country since 2001. He lost his sight when he was living in a war zone in South Lebanon. “I was 12 years old and I found a cluster bomb – it didn’t look like a bomb, it looked like a pen. And it went off and that was the end of my vision,” he explains.

“But, to be just, although it’s not fun to be blind, if it weren’t for that happening I wouldn’t be what I am today. I don’t think I would be as sensitive to others.
And I was very naive about the world, so I might just still be a village boy in Lebanon if not for that,” he adds.

That statement is typical of Fawaz, who credits the kindness of others willing to help with much of his success. “I started high school in Lebanon, but went to tenth, eleventh and twelfth grades at Lincoln Park High School on the southeast side of the state. I had some basic English when I came here, but in my very first term they had a student teacher who worked very hard with me. I even managed to get an A in biology my first year here, and that was a real challenge,” he says with a laugh.

He explains that learning English was made somewhat more difficult by his inability to see. “If you want to teach somebody a foreign language you show them an object,” he says, holding up a piece of paper, “and tell them the word for it. But that clearly didn’t work for me.”

Fawaz says that now his screen-reading devices give him access to whole worlds of knowledge through computers. A measure of this is his academic performance at Cooley, where he has been on the Dean’s List much of his first two years.

Fawaz has been involved with both the Moot Court and Mock Trial executive boards. He was a finalist in the Mock Trial Open Competition.

And then there is his hard work and dedication. When he was involved in a trial while interning at the Access to Justice Clinic (as his resume points out, operating under MCR?8.120), he had a practice-trial session scheduled on a day when very low temperatures caused classes to be cancelled. “I really wanted to stay home in bed,” he says. “But I realized, if this were the court date, I couldn’t just tell the judge it’s too cold. So I took the bus and made it in.”

Professor Hastings adds his own story about Fawaz. “I'm occasionally in the office late at night, or on a weekend, when others are out having fun. And I'm not immune to feeling sorry for myself, “ he says. “Many is the time when I've been sitting in a quiet office to hear ‘tap-tap, tap-tap, tap-tap’ in the hallway, and I know it is Mohamed finding his way through our wide corridors. Sometimes I get up and go talk to him, and help him find his way to where he is going.
Sometimes I just stay at my desk, but invariably I am inspired and feel better. Mohamed teaches me to focus on the goal, not the obstacles.”

But Hastings emphasizes that he made the nomination based primarily on Fawaz’s leadership and caring.

Fawaz has not only volunteered with a wide variety of worthy organizations both inside and outside of WMU-Cooley, he has also taken it upon himself to organize both a coat collection and a Christmas gift donation drive in the past year.

He volunteered at Dégagé Ministries, shadowing Cooley professors who offer services there once a week; at the Grand Rapids Bar Lawyer Referral Service gathering data from callers; and with the Tenant Law Project at Steepletown Ministries. He was a volunteer juror with the Hillman Advocacy Program, and worked at an Expungement Workshop last fall.

He also interned with Attorney Anna Rapa for eight months, assisting with research, observing in court, and giving feedback on criminal law matters.

About Fawaz’s current volunteer position at Disability Advocates of Kent County, he says, “I mostly help people with their EEOC complaints, I help them draft their complaints, get involved with civil rights here and there, fairness issues. I’ve drafted letters in regard to ADA and reasonable accommodation. It’s heartbreaking to see some of the things that happen, but the job is fun.”

Even though he does not graduate until December, Fawaz would like to find paid work as soon as possible. He says his interests encompass a wide variety of practice areas, including criminal, disabilities law, employment, and person injuries law.

He majored in creative writing and psychology for his undergraduate degree from Grand Valley State University, and was a reporter and editorial writer for the student newspaper at Henry Ford Community College before that. He feels that his writing skills are sharp and could benefit an employer, but he will devote himself to doing whatever he is called on to do in the legal field.

Though he has many relatives in Southeast Michigan, and his mother has since come to live there — “I guess eventually we succeeded in convincing her that she shouldn’t stay in a war-torn country anymore,” he says — Fawaz is committed to remaining in West Michigan.

“Even though there might be more jobs over there, I think the people are too busy. They don’t want to stop and talk, and they say they don’t have time to help, like the people here.”

The website he designed himself, www.mofawaz.com, offers his resume and other materials.

It is important to Fawaz to make it on his merits. Saying, “Being blind doesn’t just give you a pass,” he adds, “I really appreciate people being kind, but ultimately I don’t want sympathy, I don’t want compassion, what I really want is practical help. I want people to be willing to give me a chance by hiring me.”