Zafar Iqbal remembers the exact moment when he discovered the depth of his identity. He was a teenager in the 1980s living in the pensioner paradise known as Pune, India. That’s when he turned on his television and saw pop icon Michael Jackson flit across stage backwards doing the “Moonwalk.” It was one of a barrage of Hollywood images that streamed into Iqbal’s consciousness, bringing with it a glimpse of the freedom and individuality that permeates American culture.
Iqbal, now an associate professor of marketing at DePaul, says seeing those visions of uniqueness and originality spoke volumes to him as he struggled to find his identity among the formal Indian culture where familial ties often take precedent over individual desires.
“I grew up Indian,” Iqbal said, “but in my mind I’m more American, in that I always wanted to be an individual.”
Today, Iqbal is helping DePaul students and faculty discover that same sense of global cultural duality he tapped into all those years ago by spearheading DePaul’s new cultural exchange initiatives with Symbosis University in his hometown of Pune. (Read more about the new initiatives here.)
To date more than 100 students have traveled to India with Iqbal and Marketing Instructor Luis Larrera to attend classes, visit Indian businesses and nonprofits, meet Indian students and faculty and learn about Indian culture. In the future, Iqbal says, more Indian students will come to DePaul to share ideas, culture and business best practices.
Global education begins at home
As a Muslim boy, growing up in a Hindu neighborhood attending a Catholic school, Iqbal learned quickly that identity could be relative. “I guess I always considered myself a minority wherever I went. I picked up values from everywhere that made sense.”
Such a trait is essential for anyone looking to work in a global business world. But at the time of his discovery, Iqbal was just trying to avoid going to his university classes.
“I had the worst attendance record,” he said laughing about his days as an engineering student at the University of Poona, in Pune. Unlike students in America, Indian students in the 1980s didn’t really have much choice of study. If you were middle class and your parents made a decent living you were going to school to study medicine, commerce or the sciences. None of them appealed to Iqbal, but he felt he didn’t have a choice.
“I picked the lesser of three evils,” he said about his course study in mechanical engineering. “I did well in science and in the arts but the arts had no professional career path. There was no serious career counseling for us, so I took what I considered to be the least awful option.”
While his classes didn’t motivate him, Iqbal says engineering taught him to love math and analytics. And when he took the one humanities class available—the class was a behemoth of philosophy, anthropology and psychology all combined—his attendance record soared. After getting a job in engineering sales and moving to America, Iqbal says he finally discovered his true calling—teaching.
“When I became a professor, I walked into a classroom and started teaching and I realized I didn’t want to do anything else,” he said. “No one would have predicted it.”
But Iqbal soon discovered another calling—spreading the gospel of global education.
Global education is a two-way street
As one of DePaul’s global education evangelists, Iqbal’s assignment is to find ways to increase globalization within the university. He understands the prosaic view that through an educational exchange between Indian and American students, Americans can learn operating in emerging markets from Indians and that Indians can learn creativity and innovation from Americans. But, he says, “there’s a deeper learning that can happen where you start to realize that you’ve got people who are utterly resource constrained and are creating a complete life for themselves and are very happy. There’s some softer variable there that allows people to be content with where they are and yet constantly wanting to grow and improve. So, applying this concept in the business world…the better lesson beyond improvisation is learning to do with less and still creating great outputs.”
The partnership with Symbosis is just the beginning and Iqbal envisions a time when teams of DePaul students and faculty are traveling to India and Indian administrators, faculty and students find DePaul a second home. And in the end both the DePaul community and his hometown community will experience the same global duality he discovered in his childhood.
“There will be a bilateral flow,” Iqbal says. “This is essentially me connecting the two or three places I love. This is not work, this is a mission.”