Watching the tragedy unfold from nearly 2,000 miles away, Farshad Azad felt compelled to respond.

When images and video of George Floyd’s murder by a Minneapolis police officer appeared on news telecasts and swept through social media feeds after Memorial Day, communities around the country—and then the world—expressed sadness, anger, and outrage. As attention elsewhere focused on the global pandemic, politics, and other news, Azad (MPA, ‘90) refused to ignore Floyd’s death.

Forty years after he first experienced racism as a person of color arriving in the United States, he struggles to understand how discrimination, hate, and brutality remain so unacceptably pervasive in today’s society. He wondered, what could I do?

“My thought at the time was, ‘Alright, I need to do something that would be positive and helpful,” he said.

With an eye on social justice and seeking a way to change the lives of Chico State students and his community, Azad founded the George Floyd Memorial Award in early June. The student recipient of this annual scholarship will be selected by a committee from the Office of Diversity and Inclusion and additional University faculty and staff each spring, and qualified applicants must be change agents working to eradicate prejudice, racism, and inequality in their community, state, or nation.

Office of Diversity and Inclusion Director Tray Robinson said the George Floyd Memorial Award is an opportunity to recognize outstanding work surrounding equity, diversity, and inclusion.

“These students are our future,” Robinson said, “and they will carry forward the great work of our elders in creating a more equitable world for all of us to live in.”

“I shared [the idea for the award] with friends and family, and everybody absolutely loved it,” Azad (MPA, ’90) said. “There wasn’t anybody from right, left, center, or any aspect of our political life who did not think it was a good idea.”

Azad said Chico State students have the chance to be change agents for tomorrow and are a generation with the power to put an end to systemic racism and create social justice. He hopes, by honoring a student committed to such efforts, it will inspire and empower others to do the same.

The Iranian-born Azad has always been a big-picture, forward-thinking individual. At age 13 and the son of a judge, he was drawn to reading his father’s sophisticated law books, all of which opened with prominent photos of Iran’s king, queen, and crown prince. So, when Azad eventually opened the Constitution of the United States, he noticed right away how it started with “We the People.”

“I said, ‘Dad, there’s something wrong with this book, it doesn’t have the pictures,’” Azad recalled. “He said, ‘Different country, different values, different ideals.’”

Intrigued and fascinated, the teenager delved into the US Constitution to learn more about the rights, justice, and liberty it guaranteed. He became a burgeoning and outspoken activist—and after writing a commentary about several policies of the royal family at the time, the 13-year-old Azad received a visit from a pair of Iranian Secret Service agents.

In no uncertain terms, Azad was warned never to write anything that critical again. Undeterred, he became increasingly interested in political science, and at age 15, he made a move that would change his life.

“After much talking with my grandfather and my dad, I found that I wanted to pursue political science,” Azad said. “So, I flew to Kansas and studied for my last year of high school there, then transitioned to the University of Kansas,” where he earned a bachelor’s degree in political science in 1985.

In stark contrast to the newfound freedom to share his beliefs, Azad also recalls unsettling encounters upon his immigration. Growing up in Iran, Azad had only read about racism in the context of civil rights and what was happening in America at the time.

Taking personal responsibility for improving our community, wherever it is we live, fuels Azad and his support for this scholarship.

His changed identity as an immigrant became an introduction to discrimination that he would continually and personally experience at different times throughout his life.

“That’s the first time somebody kind of dissed me for where I was from and I didn’t have any control over it,” he recalled. “I had never seen it, I didn’t even know how to behave with it. I had no idea what was going on, because it was personal but I couldn’t take it personal. It was a real confusing feeling all the way around.”

Instead, he dedicated his life to educating others.

After earning his Master of Public Administration from Chico State in 1990, he has been lecturing part time in the Department of Kinesiology —teaching in the department longer than any other faculty. He served on the University Advisory Board from 2006 to 2018 and received Chico State’s Distinguished Alumni Service Award in 2015. And as the founder of Azad’s Martial Arts Center in Chico, Grandmaster Azad teaches martial arts for children and young adults, while also speaking around the world and conducting personal self-defense training classes to the public and local and federal law enforcement.

The idea of supporting his community forms the roots for the student award.

“The George Floyd Memorial Fund is simply a tiny little drop in the bucket of change that we all need to create in our country,” Azad said.

We all play a part in our community, said Azad, and how we treat others with our actions will affect the future of our community.

President Gayle Hutchinson said the award also reflects the University’s strategic priority of equity, diversity, and inclusion. While Chico State has made great strides in recent years, it still has a substantial amount of work to do to ensure that the campus cultivates a welcoming and inclusive campus where students, faculty, and staff have an equitable opportunity to thrive.  

She applauds Azad’s partnership in elevating and supporting students who are champions for transforming tomorrow not only for themselves but also for the greater good.

“The George Floyd Memorial Award provides the University the opportunity to recognize a student who is a leader and champion for social justice and racial equality,” Hutchinson said. “It demonstrates we stand behind students who are passionate about this work and we want to ensure their success.”

Envisioning the award as an annual honor, Azad hopes he and other philanthropic-minded donors can help inspire future Chico State students, revolutionize their thinking, and change their lives—much like his move to the United State did for him decades ago.

“This scholarship will hopefully create the same opportunity for a student that needs just a little help to step forward, to not only get engaged in their community in different ways, but also to understand that there’s somebody out there or some group out there that cares, and they’re providing this for you,” Azad said. “Now it’s your chance to step up to the podium and accept a leadership position somehow in your life and become a leader.”

To support the George Floyd Memorial Award, visit www.csuchico.edu/transformtomorrow.