Aspiring Doctor Personifies Poise on the Pitch
Issue   |   Fri, 05/18/2018 - 11:28
Image courtesy of Aziz Khan '18
Khan’s soccer coach says Khan always puts his teammates’ successes first, both on and off the field, a quality that led to his selection as team captain.

Aziz Khan was picked last in his fifth versus sixth grade soccer match. “I actually started late,” Khan remembers. “I was not into sports when I was younger. I was more into arts, drawing and painting.” That day, when Khan was picked last, changed his mind.

“I wasn’t a big soccer fan, but the idea of being left out felt awful,” he explained. “So that summer, I asked my mother to get me a ball and I just trained. I trained all summer, and I came back the next year and I was one of the better players.” Success on the pitch, along with encouragement from his mother to look abroad brought him from Banjul, Gambia to boarding school in Groton, Massachusetts and finally to Amherst.

While at Amherst, Khan was home on the left flank of the Mammoths’ attacking trident. On the ball, he is poised, his poker face giving no hint as to his intentions. Galloping forward, he can uncork a sizzling cross, leaving his defender in his wake with a whirling-dervish-like combination of feints and explosive steps. His coach, Justin Serpone, praised Khan, saying he was “probably as creative and talented as any guy we’ve had. He has a little bit of a flair to him that other guys appreciate.”
Serpone, however, qualifies such praise unusually, noting, “But that’s one percent of what I would remember about Aziz.”

To explore Khan’s time at Amherst without consideration for the empathy, poise and determination with which he carries himself is to ignore the most important part of him. These characteristics are fueled by his deeply faith-based sense of self and a profound love of his home.

A Close Childhood Community

Banjul sits at the gaping mouth of the Gambia River, the banks of which comprise the serpentine-shaped nation of Gambia. The joining of river and sea holds more than aesthetic significance for Khan’s family. His father runs a restaurant which serves dishes from both bodies of water, while his mother exports aquatic delicacies, like traditionally dried catfish and tiger prawns, to Gambian expatriates abroad who crave the taste of home.

When I asked where to get Gambian food in Amherst, Khan warmly offered his mother’s cooking when she comes for graduation, earnestly insisting that there is no better alternative. “I only get homesick when I miss the food,” he jokes. Gambia, however, plays a distinct part in the way Khan interacts with the world around him.

After Khan was born in Boston, his parents made a decision to leave America and return to their homeland. Khan attributes his parents’ move to a desire to raise their family like they themselves were raised.

The first difference Khan notes is the pace of life. “You have to make friends outside,” he quips.
His earliest memories involve growing up in the streets of Banjul, which he describes with a hint of nostalgia. People are what matter in his memory of Gambia.

“Gambia is different in the sense that it is a very collectivist culture. All doors are open, and you are encouraged to meet people, say hi and always greet the elders.” The guarantee of close community, even sitting some 3,500 miles away from the bustle of Banjul in Frost Café, gives Khan confidence to pause and smile to himself.

Khan took the lessons from home to America. “In many ways that culture grounded me, and so when I came over for boarding school in 2010, it wasn’t a big jump to me,” Although most Gambians who study abroad do so in Europe, at the suggestion of his mother, Khan enrolled in Lawrence Academy, a boarding school in Massachusetts.

Khan enjoyed life at Lawrence, where he made music, danced and played soccer. “It was different, but I felt like I had everything I need to succeed here,” Khan said. He enjoyed the sense of community at the school, where he knew all his peers, teachers and the staff personally. It was a desire to continue his education in this type of small, tight-knit community that drew him to Amherst.

A Team Player

In his first fall at Amherst, Khan immediately found a group of close friends on the soccer team, eagerly dove into his coursework, ran track and got involved in many groups, both faith-based and secular. Early on, Khan formed a close connection with Mo Hussein ’18, whom he remains close with to this day. They bonded over meals in Valentine Dining Hall, debating sports — Khan avidly follows the NBA and is a Manchester United fanatic — and Hussein grew to value Khan’s wit, as well as his care, honesty and patience. “When he’s talking to you, he never loses his calm — he knows who he is and will never change that,” Hussein said.

“There’s a handful of kids you have over the years, that, even when you are coaching them, you admire, and Aziz is one of those guys,” says Serpone, who values Khan’s contributions off the field as much as his creativity on the pitch. “He’s as kind-hearted as a person as I’ve met, let alone coached. You just want people to be around him.” When giving the 11 new first-years on the team advice, Serpone simply told them: “just stand next to Aziz and you’ll learn something.” Khan, in his role as captain, added value not through exuberance, but through a measured confidence and caring interactions. “The way that Aziz works, it’s one-on-one conversations, it’s challenging people, again in really thoughtful ways,” Serpone said.

Although a delightfully skillful player with the ball at his feet, Khan struggled throughout his time at Amherst to dominate defensively, a necessary part of Amherst’s intense, physical style of play. Even when the going was tough, Serpone noted that Khan’s innate positivity deflected any hits to his confidence.

Indeed, according to Serpone, Aziz consistently put his teammates’ successes first, almost to a fault. “Any conflict I’ve had with Aziz is because he’s so unselfish. He doesn’t worry about himself at all, he’s always thinking about other people.” The team selected Khan as captain his senior year for this exact ability to motivate and connect with his teammates.

Even with these minor struggles, Khan’s soccer career has brought great joys — he fondly remembers celebrating goals, especially at Amherst’s DIII National Championship during his sophomore year. Khan remains grateful for the experiences his soccer career has given him.

“To me, soccer has been a great teacher of many things,” Khan said. “Discipline, patience and just how to deal with people. You are forced to meet people and then learn to work with them. I think we [the Amherst team] have a common joy and common love. That joy is the language we all speak and it brings us together.”

A Field of Interests

Off the field, Khan has excelled in his academic work. Along with completing a psychology major, Aziz pursued courses which would prepare him for a career in medicine. In his major, he enjoyed looking at the human mind and understanding its confounding nuances, particularly in his Behavioral Neuroscience and Abnormal Psychology courses. Outside of his major, his favorite course was Organic Chemistry with Professor David Hansen. “STEM courses are very difficult in a sense, because they are different than other courses,” Khan explained. “They are very applied. They give you the tools, so when they give you a problem they know how to attack it.”

Lauding Professor Hansen’s teaching ability, Khan said, “I think often professors get lost in assuming some things you might know, but Professor Hansen lays everything out. The tools he has given me I can apply to other courses.”

Khan also developed a passion for languages, taking courses in French and Spanish, which he regrets beginning too late, and he hopes to continue honing his skills after college.

In addition to balancing academics, friends and athletics, Khan is a devout Muslim. Practicing his faith at Amherst, however, has not been straightforward. Salat, the practice of five daily prayers, often overlaps with class and practice, but Khan always finds time in his schedule to pray. “If I miss it, I make it up at night,” he said.

The Muslim community at Amherst is small in comparison to Gambia. Valentine Dining Hall does not observe halal cooking methods, so Khan must forgo that practice at school while still avoiding pork and pork products. Tequila lime chicken and other meals cooked with alcohol also pose an issue for Khan’s religious practices. Khan wryly cracks that he finds himself “switching over to the ‘Lighter Side’ a lot.”

Living in a diverse community, despite the difficulties of practicing his faith, has been a positive experience for Khan. It has allowed him to serve as an ambassador for his faith and enter into dialogue with those of other faiths and perspectives he would not have encountered in Gambia. Faith also provided a springboard into the larger Pioneer Valley for Khan. He regularly attends the Hampshire Mosque in Hadley for Friday prayers and meets with the Muslim community at UMass Amherst.

Pursuing His Dreams

After Amherst, Khan has set his sights on medical school. He sees the immediate future, however, as another opportunity to try new things and follow his passions. Along with attending tryouts to play professional soccer, Khan will teach science to seventh and eighth graders and extend the passion for the sciences he has cultivated as a pre-med student at Amherst to the wider world, or maybe conduct research in the sciences.

Hussein, who hails from Somaliland, joked with me at the end of our interview that he and Khan would take their nation’s flags with them upon their graduation, as the probability of another student arriving from their homelands remains unlikely.

Mo laughs after saying this, but adds, “Hopefully, because of him, there’ll be more Gambians here in the future.” From Banjul to Benenski, Khan has maintained a strong self of self, bringing joy and calm to friends, teammates, professors and peers.