When the tornadoes came, Hassen Hafiz knew what to do. It was a Monday afternoon early in the fall semester, and Hafiz, a junior at Virginia Commonwealth University, was in the middle of his rounds as student manager in VCU’s University Student Commons. It had been an unremarkable shift, filled mostly with the basic ingredients that make Hafiz love the job — logistics, customer service, teamwork, a large ring of keys, and, perhaps most of all, “knowing stuff.”
Hafiz stopped in the Student Leadership Center on the second floor to say hello and make sure everything was OK. And it was — at first.
Then cellphones pinged awake in unison. Students checked their screens. A tornado warning had been issued for the area, and the VCU community was advised to seek immediate shelter. Hafiz paused for a moment to consider the circumstances. He was managing a crucial campus building filled with students and others, and a potential danger was fast approaching outside.
He felt a rush of something. Was it panic?
No, it was something else.
“I felt the challenge and the pressure, and I was like, ‘OK, here’s what we’re going to do,’” Hafiz said.
Hafiz fell in love with VCU when he came for the university’s preview day for prospective students in the fall of his senior year of high school. Hafiz, who is from Fairfax, Virginia, was eager to attend college in an urban setting with a diverse student body and as frenetic and vibrant an atmosphere as he could find. He wanted to be busy right up to the edge of being overwhelmed. He dreamed of endless opportunities to engage with his peers, gain new expertise and embrace new experiences. Walking around VCU that day, he knew he’d found what he was looking for.
“It was April, and it was a really bad day,” Hafiz said. “It was muggy and gross and you could see pollen everywhere. But I came and went to the sessions they had and I took a tour, and it was such a great experience coming onto this campus and just breathing the VCU air. It hit me that this is where I was supposed to go.”
Today, Hafiz is pursuing a dual degree in political science and supply chain management and analytics, but he’s also a restless, contagiously enthusiastic member of the wider VCU community who jumps from one activity to the next, finding excitement in just about everything he tries. His current commitments include serving as chair of the Student Government Association’s appropriations committee, as vice president of the Residence Hall Association and as vice president of finance for Student Admissions Ambassadors. There’s also his job at the commons, where he has been working since last year. He has moved rapidly up the organizational chart there, rising from facilities assistant to assistant student manager to student manager, which means he’s now managing the building approximately 20-25 hours per week.
Hafiz said each role provides its own unique rewards, but they all share a common theme.
“I love helping other people,” Hafiz said. “I don’t know what it is, but when I help other people and assist them with things, I feel so accomplished. I feel energetic and happy, and I always feel passionate about whatever it is I’m helping them with. Whether it’s a math assignment or I’m helping them develop an event for their organization, that stuff gets me really excited.”
Rochelle Upshur, assistant director of facilities and operations in University Student Commons and Activities, supervises Hafiz at the commons and serves as a mentor for him. She said Hafiz is a “one-of-a-kind student.”
“I think what he loves about all of his leadership positions is that he gets to spark life and excitement into every organization that he’s in and into anyone who interacts with him,” Upshur said. “He’s not doing all of these things just for his resume. He really is passionate about everything he’s involved with.”
Hafiz arrived at VCU intending to only dip a toe into extracurricular activities at first while he adjusted to campus. Instead, he dove into its myriad extracurricular activities as soon as he arrived.
Hafiz said it thrills him to help people tackle challenges and find solutions when answers seem particularly elusive. He said his work with student organizations and the commons stems from that impulse. With every group, he’s always exploring whether there is a better way of doing things. For example, Upshur said Hafiz has helped the commons refine its policies and procedures for training student workers, including creating a new manual for students.
“He has helped us to have more consistency in our programs and how we deliver our services to not only the students who work for us but also the clients who utilize our spaces,” Upshur said.
Academically, Hafiz gravitated first toward political science in the College of Humanities and Sciences because of his interest in government and policy. Then he took a business class, was captivated and explored the School of Business’ offerings more closely. He soon learned about supply chain management and knew it would be a natural fit for his obsession with logistics.
Hafiz said he would like to combine his interests to work in logistics and operations for the federal government eventually.
“I feel like it’s very hard to make changes in the way the federal government does things, but that’s something I’d like to try,” he said.
Hafiz insists he is not overscheduled with work — he has plenty of time for fun. For instance, he’s a rabid fan of Richmond. The city played a critical role in luring Hafiz to VCU, and he said the urban experience has exceeded his high expectations. He said he finds city noise and hubbub relaxing — except for sirens — and loves the unlimited options the city provides, especially among its restaurants. He routinely takes the bus around Richmond and its environs to explore.
“I love the urban-ness here and the busy-ness,” Hafiz said. “I feel like everyone’s doing something here all the time.”
Hafiz’s enthusiasm for VCU and Richmond prompted him to become an admissions student ambassador. He gives tours to prospective students in hopes that he can inspire the same kind of attachment to the university that he felt his first time on campus. He makes a point of personalizing campus for visitors, bringing it alive by sharing how a student actually lives and works there.
“It’s like a weird energy comes over me on those tours,” Hafiz said. “I get very excited when I try to communicate what’s great about VCU. I use a lot of high adjectives, but I know a lot of people are very visual so my facial expressions are huge — I’ve always got a big smile. That energy and passion hits them in a way that is different than a PowerPoint presentation or a video.”
His position at the commons brings Hafiz particular joy. He helps with a diverse mix of events held in the facility every day, but he also savors simply providing information and basic directions to visitors. He revels in knowing the answers to people’s questions, but said he might actually prefer it when he doesn’t know. Then he gets to research their question and learn something new.
“I love that job to death,” Hafiz said. “I really seem to have a hard time leaving it after a shift. I’m very excited the whole time I’m working there. If you ever see me in the building, you’ll see me with the biggest smile on my face because I constantly feel like I’m in the center of the action.”
Soon after learning of the tornado threat, Hafiz sprang into action. He worked with his fellow staff members to determine the best areas in the commons basement to serve as gathering places. Then he grabbed a bullhorn and provided guidance to people, teaming with his colleagues to escort the building’s visitors safely and cordially into offices and other spaces in the basement to ride out the storm.
Some people were anxious and scared. Some struggled to maintain their composure. Hafiz recognized that he needed to convey calm and maintain a level head. That proved easy. He actually did feel calm. He comforted those who were upset and made sure everyone received updated information about the storm threat as soon as he received it.
After a couple of hours, the threat lifted and those in the basement trickled back into the world. Hafiz had done his job.
“It was a really intense situation, and I loved being able to handle it,” he said.
Upshur said Hafiz received “rave reviews” from students, staff and tenants for his actions during the tornadoes. They said he was unflappable, careful to communicate clearly with all parties, and assured in the appropriate steps to take throughout the process.
“He’s able to handle a situation like that because he likes to be very knowledgeable about his work,” Upshur said. “He has a lot of knowledge about this job beyond what student managers are required to know. I think he finds comfort in that because he knows if a situation like that arises he will know what to do. With the tornado, Hassen hustled after the warning went off and knew exactly what to do, who to contact, where to move folks and things like that. And everybody listened to Hassen because it was natural for him to take control. He’s a true leader, and to be able to thrive in situations like that is an asset most students don’t have yet.”
Hafiz points to the tornado episode as another in a series of events that are defining his college experience and ensuring he departs VCU with skills and knowledge that stick with him.
“I love challenges because they help me to learn,” Hafiz said. “I definitely learned a lot that day.”
Hafiz believes he has enough responsibilities with his current commitments to see him through the rest of his time at VCU and to provide him with all the new tests he can handle.
“I know I’ve got a lot going on, and I really don’t envision anything coming up that I feel like I’d need to go work on,” he said.
Then Hafiz paused and his perpetual smile grew wider as he considered what he’d said.
“If a new challenge comes up along the way, though, I guess I know I’m not going to turn it down.”
Hassen Hafiz is one of four VCU students to receive a Virginia’s Caring University scholarship this fall. The scholarship supports juniors and seniors in financial need with a GPA of 2.7 or higher. Money for the scholarship is raised during the annual Marquita Aguilar Walk-A-Thon, held each spring and sponsored by the Staff Senate. The scholarship has helped more than 100 undergraduates by raising more than $110,000 in scholarship funds.
Other recipients of the scholarship this year include: