Syed was born in Delaware County, Pennsylvania, to Pakistani immigrants, who were escaping sectarian persecution and seeking greater educational opportunities for their children. As a toddler, Syed was diagnosed with Stargardts, which would render him blind. As Syed's life progressed, his family learned that the American dream did not extend to blind Americans. He struggled immensely, barred from equal participation in academia and other aspects of life. Syed fell behind his peers and internalized the way that society treated him.
At 19, Syed was contacted by the National Federation of the Blind (NFB), a revolutionary group of blind people, transforming the blind narrative. After graduating from their intensive training program in Louisiana, where he was equipped with the best blindness skills and an alternative philosophy on blindness, Syed enrolled at the University of Texas at Austin. He combined his parents' passions for education and humanitarian work to study the systems in place that limit individuals, such as himself, and began working to reform those systems.
In May 2020, Syed graduated with his BA in government, receiving the university's highest honor, named as the Dean's Distinguished Graduate. During the COVID19 outbreak, Syed volunteered with Imamia Medics International, delivering crucial information and supplies to underserved communities. Most recently, Syed cofounded the American Muslim Bar Association, an organization dedicated to disseminating legal education to disenfranchised communities, providing legal protection to marginalized groups and mentoring the next generation of minority attorneys.
We caught up with Syed about what's next and what the Fellowship has meant to him:
2021 Fellow Syed Rizvi at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City for the Paul and Daisy Soros Fall Conference 2023.
2021 Fellow Syed Rizvi at the Together Achieving Dreams Foundation inaugural gala, a non-profit Syed is helping to launch that is focused on combatting the 75% blind unemployment rate.
Over the past two years, what personal or professional accomplishment are you most proud of?
This past year, I helped launch the Together Achieving Dreams Foundation, an organization directly combating the 75 percent blind unemployment rate. This would not have been possible without the support and guidance of the Fellowship. It was always my goal that once I was empowered, I could then empower others. The PD Soros Fellowship has empowered me and now I have the strength to empower the blind community. I have partnered with corporate employers, charitable donors, leaders in the blindness world, and families to build a pipeline of blind students from birth into corporate America.
What advice would you give to someone who is thinking of applying to The Paul & Daisy Soros Fellowships for New Americans?
The prestige of this Fellowship can certainly be intimidating, but every New American has an incredible story and the true challenge lies in being able to tell it. I would recommend that you speak with your grandparents, parents, and other relatives about your family's journey and take time to reflect upon all the amazing events that had to transpire in order for you to be pursuing a graduate degree in America. Then, paint that picture on to paper with words. You must approach the application as if you are creating a piece of art that reflects your true essence. Do not write an essay, rather tell a story, a narrative of the blood, sweat, and tears that propelled you to this point. Do not simply tell the committee all that you have done, show them who you are.
Who has inspired you from the Paul & Daisy Soros Fellowship community?
Cyrus Habib has not only been an inspiration to me in my career and in my journey through blindness but he has also been a spiritual guide in finding meaning in life. As he has already traversed many of my potential future trajectories, he has steered me away from pursuing the meaningless man-made golden stars and towards actions that will truly impact the lives of those around me.
Has the Fellowship been what you expected?
Connecting with my heroes, such as Cyrus Habib, and building a family of support amongst the Paul & Daisy Soros Fellows has turned my dreams into reality. The Fellowship connected me with mentors to guide me in launching my non-profit that lowers the unemployment rate in the blind community. Having the PD Soros name behind mine gave me a certain level of legitimacy in society that is often not enjoyed by a blind, disabled, Muslim, Pakistani-American, such as myself.
Has your sense of what it means to be a New American changed or shifted through the Fellowship experience and community?
Yes, all too often we fall into a victim mindset which stunts our ability to dream. The Fellowship broke this barrier in my mind through showing me New American excellence in the stories of Paul & Daisy Soros and my peers in the Fellowship. I have gone from viewing my New American status as a weakness to now a symbol of strength and pride. This Fellowship most amazingly exemplifies the American mantra that this country was built by immigrants. ∎