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Meet the new dean: Badia Ahad is a fan of Oxford College … and flourishing
photo of Badia Ahad

Badia Ahad takes the helm of Oxford College on Aug. 1. She currently serves as professor of English and vice provost for faculty affairs at Loyola University Chicago.

— Photo courtesy of Loyola University Chicago

Recently named the next dean of Oxford College, Badia Ahad has followed a lifelong pathway of learning and flourishing that led to her new role, which she begins Aug. 1.

One significant summer when Badia Ahad was an undergraduate, a professor in the research pipeline program she was part of invited her to collaborate on a paper. “I’ll show you what it means to be a researcher,” he said.

“He got me a pass to the stacks, which at the time was reserved for graduate students and faculty,” recalls Ahad. “So the fact that I was an undergraduate student and I got to go into this secret world of knowledge just made it feel so special.” 

That pass opened new territory for Ahad, who credits the experience with inspiring her to become a professor. But even as a child, she was familiar with the promise of academia.

Ahad grew up in Hyde Park, the neighborhood that is home to the University of Chicago. “I grew up with people from all kinds of communities and ethnicities. Every Saturday morning as kids, we would wake up at the crack of dawn and go to the university, which hosted something called academic games. In elementary school, professors came to our classroom and talked about their work.”

Hyde Park, time in the stacks and the influence of her mother — a Chicago public school teacher and voracious reader — all set the direction of her future. Years later, after rising to full professor of English and vice provost for faculty affairs at Loyola University Chicago, Ahad would find herself called to yet another university setting — this time to help shape the future for others. 

Another campus calls

Oxford College boasts a handsome, historic campus and a close-knit community of students, faculty and staff. With its singular focus on the first and second years of college, Oxford is a uniquely engaged living and learning community where students thrive and then continue to flourish on Emory’s Atlanta campus and beyond.

This quickly became evident to Ahad as she familiarized herself with Oxford in the days leading up to her first visit to explore the opportunity to serve as its dean.   

“Before visiting Oxford, I was already deeply impressed with the engagement and achievements of students and the world-class faculty whose compelling research and teaching create rich academic experiences,” she says. “But the moment I stepped onto Oxford’s vibrant campus, I knew that I was in a special place. I quickly learned that the wonderful things I read about Oxford could not adequately capture the character, dynamism and intellect of this community.”

After seeing the campus, talking with students, staff and faculty during interviews, and learning about Oxford’s core principles — belonging, care, accountability, learning, identity and presence — Ahad found that Oxford’s values and momentum matched her own.

Particularly resonant was the student-centered, whole-person approach expressed in the Oxford Principles and Emory’s Student Flourishing initiative, which emphasizes an integrated approach to academic, personal and professional growth. “It’s a great framework for students to orient themselves in this new chapter of their lives. It gives them the capacity and the autonomy to think: Who am I? What do I believe, and how do I want to show up in the world?” she says.

Reflecting on these questions, Ahad believes, will allow students to begin a lifelong process of determining and pursuing their own sense of purpose. “As dean, I’m excited to see how these principles apply across student affairs, curricula, different areas of the college, and with the new Center for Pathways and Purpose launching this fall.”

She also wants to explore ways to extend flourishing beyond the student experience. What does flourishing look like for faculty? For staff? These questions emerge from Ahad’s long experience as a mentor, not only as an award-winning teacher of undergraduates but as a nationally sought-after faculty development coach.

“I am good at helping people to see the best in themselves,” she reflects. “I love helping people get unstuck and allowing them to see possibilities and pathways they may not have envisioned for themselves.”

The importance of hope

Do all roads in Ahad’s life lead to flourishing? Sometimes it may seem so. As she says, “Flourishing is a concept that is important to me personally, but also very much informs my research.” 

A scholar of African American literature and culture, Ahad saw her work turn in this direction at the end of a semester some years ago. As she finished teaching a core course on African American literature, Ahad was struck by what she calls a “traumatic narrative that I created for my students just in our syllabus.” She was troubled. Had she just spent 15 weeks presenting a negative story to her students, some of whom were unlikely to continue their literary studies? “My concern,” she says, “was that they would walk away with the idea that this is all that constitutes African American life.”

She asked herself: Was there another way to tell the story, one that doesn’t erase the pain or the trauma, but adds or offers another dimension of African American life?

There was. Turning from the concept African American studies sometimes refers to as an “archive of pain,” Ahad says, “I wanted to think about what it means to produce an archive of joy.” And she did, in her 2021 book “Afro-Nostalgia: Feeling Good in Contemporary Black Culture.” The work was later adopted to create a new curriculum for more than 13,000 K-12 students in Illinois’s East Aurora School District 131 to support culturally relevant instructional practices.

“What is underneath this work,” she says, “is a sense of hope.”

That’s something Ahad wants to instill in others — especially students, and especially now. Citing a recent study that found those between the ages of 18 and 25 felt worse off than other generations across every dimension of well-being, she emphasizes the importance of making sure students are supported not just academically, but socially and emotionally.

“I think students everywhere are still trying to adjust after the pandemic, and nationally faculty and staff have reported very high levels of burnout too,” she says. “Care for the whole person is a core value for me, and I think that that will very much show up as a mark of my leadership at Oxford.”

Liberal arts as a pathway to thriving

Perhaps not surprisingly for an academic who “loves to learn,” Ahad thinks one of the best tools a university can offer to help students flourish in challenging times is a strong liberal arts education — exactly what Oxford and Emory provide.

“If we think about what our students are living through — mass shootings, the implications of the pandemic, climate change, racism, the list goes on — I believe the liberal arts gives them the opportunity to think through these challenges across multiple domains of expertise,” Ahad says. “In doing so, they’re able to develop systems of meaning and also intellectual agility, which is going to be really important for addressing these challenges in the years to come.”

As dean, Ahad intends to lean into the high-impact, highly engaged learning practices that define an Oxford education — such as the college’s signature Discovery Seminars and Milestone Projects, as well as experiential learning courses, which help students see connections among disciplines and to reflect on what they’ve learned.

“These experiences allow students to understand how they can help bring about the positive change they want to see,” she says. “It’s empowering.” 

Fundamentally, Ahad believes, the value of a liberal arts education is the foundation it provides to cultivate flourishing, both individually and across society more broadly: “It affords students the practical means by which they can achieve their goals, in addition to the social character and sense of responsibility that will positively transform their lives and those of others.

“It’s so important to use your gifts and your privileges in order to serve others,” continues Ahad, who will soon bring her own to a new campus community as dean. “I want to make sure that I create lots of opportunities for our students at Oxford to do that.” 

On a personal note

A bit more about Badia Ahad, incoming dean of Oxford College:

  • “My husband, Nathan Legardy, calls himself a recovering search executive. He found his passion and is now the executive director of a youth development organization. My daughter, Lauren, is now a junior at Spelman, majoring in economics, and my son, Nathan Jr., will soon be a senior in high school.”
  • “I’m an avid golfer. I try to get on the course as much as I can, which is not a lot, for two reasons. One, I’m just really busy. But also I’m in the Midwest, so you only get to play golf about three months out the year. That will all change now!”
  • “I’m addicted to British dramas. I love ‘Vera,’ ‘Line of Duty,’ and ‘Luther.’ ‘The Great British Bake Off’ is my perfect feel-good show.”
  • “I’ve always loved to learn. To my mind, at the heart of flourishing is seeing the world as this capacious, wonderful place where you're never going to get it all, but it certainly is a lot of fun to just learn and try new things. That's something that really defines who I am. My family jokes that I’m always in some class. Right now it’s Pilates.”

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