Transforming education: A powerful classroom experience

Basim Razzo stands at the front of Professor Sam Richard's Sociology 119 course on April 10. Credit: Amanda ThieuAll Rights Reserved.

In 2011, an unexpected friendship began between Penn State professor of sociology Sam Richards and Basim Razzo, an Iraqi citizen living on the other side of this world. Over time, the bond between these two men would profoundly impact them both, and ultimately lead to a transformative classroom experience that would change the perspective of many students.

Richards delivered a TedTalk on “radical empathy” in 2010, in which he asked his American audience members to put themselves in the shoes of an average Iraqi citizen during the U.S. invasion of their country. Moved by the lecture after seeing it on YouTube, Razzo emailed Richards to thank him for his insight and empathy for the Iraqi people.

The professor asked Razzo for a simple favor: Skype into his Race and Ethnic Relations course, share his experience and give them real-world insight into the average lives of the Iraqi people. Razzo agreed, and became a regular fixture in Richards’ popular course, which routinely fills the largest lecture hall on campus. Over the years, he told Richards’ class how the world is filled with people who have needs and desires; people just like him, just like the students who were watching. Ultimately, he told them, we are all in this together -- there are more commonalities than differences between people.

And then came “the accident,” as Razzo calls it.

In 2011, an unexpected friendship began between Penn State professor of sociology Sam Richards and Basim Razzo, an Iraqi citizen living on the other side of this world. Over time, the bond between these two men would profoundly impact them both, and ultimately lead to a transformative classroom experience that would change the perspective of many students. 

The Accident

In 2015, American-led forces mistakenly bombed Razzo’s home. He awoke that night in his bed, the stars visible through his collapsed ceiling and a pile of rubble beside him where his wife had been sleeping. That night, he lost his wife, his daughter, his brother, and his nephew.

Richards asked Razzo if, when he was ready, he would share his experience with the class.

“He said to me, ‘I can’t. I’ll break down. I’ll cry,’” Richards recalled. “I said, ‘listen, my friend. It’s okay. Cry. Trust me. Come to my class. My students need to hear your story.’”

It would be a year, much of it spent in recovery from injuries sustained in the bombing, before Razzo was emotionally ready to return to speak to Richards’ class.

For Richards, who says he hopes his students leave his class each week “more confused than when they walked in,” this kind of experience transcends the classroom.

As Razzo shared his story with Penn State students for the first time since his great loss, many were moved to tears as he explained that, despite all that happened to him, he did not blame the American people for his tragedy and could not bring himself to hate anyone for what happened to him. Instead, he made a profound decision: he forgave.

“I was going through a very tough time in my life when Basim (Razzo) spoke to us last semester. I was at a place where hate was really bringing me down,” said Maria Arreaga, one of the students who was in class that day. “That he was able to go through what he did, and then was able to forgive, meant so much to me. What I’ve taken out of this class is that hate is useless, that forgiveness is not about the person who hurt you; it’s about yourself. That’s something I will always carry with me.”

And she was far from the only student to be deeply moved by the experience. The students, so affected by Razzo’s story, didn’t just welcome him into the classroom over Skype—they welcomed him into the Penn State family, and they wanted to do it in person.

Although Professor of Sociology Sam Richards and Basim Razzo have been personal friends since 2011, it wasn't until the students of Sociology 119 came together to bring Razzo to campus that the two friends finally met in person. Credit: Amanda ThieuAll Rights Reserved.

Coming to Campus

The whole class joined together to raise the money to fly Razzo to campus, hoping to share with him, in person, his impact on them. This semester, thanks to their efforts, Razzo was welcomed to Penn State by students who greeted him as a man of integrity and strength, a mentor, and an old friend.

“I think it shows how strong this sense of community is,” said Nick Bielamowicz, one of the students who helped pioneer the drive to raise money to bring Razzo to campus. “You’re talking about Penn State students. We don’t start something and then give up. If we set out to bring someone to America, we’re going to get that done.”

Standing before hundreds of students on April 10, Razzo wore a wide smile as he introduced himself: “I’m Basim. I’m Iraqi, I’m a Muslim, and I’m a friend of everyone.”

The room sat in rapt attention, some students wiping away tears, as Razzo recounted the immense grief that filled him after the loss of his family and his home. Even now, sometimes he can’t help but to break down and weep. But, Razzo said, this experience has helped him grow stronger in his conviction that only empathy and forgiveness can light a person’s path out of the dark.

'’How can you not hate us Americans?’” Razzo said, echoing a question he’s heard time and time again.

The Right Track

Razzo’s impact on the classroom full of students was clear. After class, Razzo was swarmed by a throng of students. Some wanted the chance to shake his hand and say thank you. Others wanted to talk about the big ideas: faith, justice, race and war. Others just wanted to give a hug to a man they respected and admired. But all of them had something in common: they were walking out of the classroom transformed.

For many of the students, like sophomore Mitchell Valentin, hearing Razzo’s story and having the chance to meet him, first over Skype and then face-to-face, was a catalyst for self-reflection and self-improvement.  For Valentin, listening to Razzo describe his journey showed him how to be a better friend, a better brother, and a better person.

“How he lost his wife, his daughter, his family, it broke my heart,” Valentin said. “I’d be full of rage. I couldn’t forgive the United States. But he doesn’t hold that grudge, and that amazes me. If we could all forgive something that big, it could solve a lot of things.”

There’s still division in the world. There’s still misunderstanding and hatred. But thanks to Razzo and the students who came together to bring his world and their own together, maybe there’s a little less of both.

“If I can convince just 10 people not to hate, and then they can go out and convince another five, that’s enough,” Razzo said. “I’m on the right track.”

This story recounts just one of the many transformative educational experiences that take place across campus. The University is committed to encouraging a diverse and inclusive community as part of “All In at Penn State.” All in is an ongoing initiative spotlighting the importance of diversity and inclusion, and encouraging members of the University community to take an active role in promoting diversity, have respectful conversations and create welcoming communities.


Last Updated April 30, 2018