As the son of Kurdish refugees, Kovan Barzani ’17 wanted to make the most of his college experience. Before he graduated from SMU, he triple majored, managed a Texas House campaign, started a program to teach refugees job skills and turned a finance internship into a full-time job.

“My mother didn’t know how to read,” says Barzani. War kept her from completing elementary school, and eventually Iraqi President Saddam Hussein’s brutal regime forced Barzani’s parents to flee for a new life in the United States.

In middle school, Barzani helped his mother learn English and pass her U.S. citizenship test. By the time he graduated from high school, he had scholarship offers from three schools. He says, “When I realized there were more opportunities to double or triple major at SMU, that was a huge factor in my decision to come to the Hilltop.”

Barzani started SMU intending to major in business management and economics. In his sophomore year, a political science teacher encouraged him to also pursue public policy. When he received an email about the then-new Tower Scholars Program, he applied and was accepted. As a result, he had opportunities to travel to Washington, D.C. – to meet with U.S. Supreme Court clerks and visit different think tanks – and to take classes from former U.S. Ambassador to Saudi Arabia Robert Jordan.

“I emphasize to prospective students that SMU is one of the best places to differentiate yourself as a student,” Barzani says. “It’s not just finding a niche; there are organizations behind these opportunities to connect you to a job market or a service project or other people who will help you make the most of your interest.”

Outside the classroom, Barzani applied what he learned to real-world politics when he managed the political campaign for a Texas House of Representatives candidate. Despite being outspent 40-to-1, the campaign won 41% of the votes.

Barzani says his most profound SMU experience reconnected him to the feeling he had watching his mother learn English. In a Cox School of Business project management class, professor Karin Quiñones had students develop projects that would help the community. Barzani and five other students helped International Rescue Committee efforts to teach refugees English. Leveraging $6,000 in grants from SMU’s Engaged Learning program that funds student-driven community initiatives, the team bought laptops, installed ESL software and trained dozens of families in English.

University connections also helped Barzani land an internship in the Plano, Texas-based auto finance group of Capital One, leading to a full-time job as a business analyst with the company before graduation. In the future, he says he hopes to earn an M.B.A. and a master’s degree in public policy while “becoming a change agent in my community.”

Barzani adds, “SMU creates a zone for you to excel in. Students just need to provide some ingenuity and drive. ‘World Changers Shaped Here’ isn’t just a tagline. It’s something that’s central to the University.”