Zayaan Khan

Zayaan Khan, second-year UCI social policy and public service and quantitative economics double major, has been awarded the Social Sciences Alumni Academic Excellence Scholarship. The honor recognizes students for outstanding academic performance and service to the School of Social Sciences, UCI campus and community and carries a $1,000 prize. Below, the outstanding undergrad from Fremont shares how life experiences have shaped his dual major interests, and how he plans to use his degree to further research and intellectual discoveries that drive global change.

What inspired your double major at UCI, and what aspects of the two intrigue you the most?

Growing up as a Bangladeshi Muslim American in a diverse Bay Area environment, I noticed and experienced disparities in treatment of different people around me. These experiences propelled me into student advocacy and cultivated my desire to alleviate oppression around the world, which led me to UCI.

I naturally gravitated toward UCI's unique social policy & public service major, as it beautifully combines service, policy, and research in imagining solutions to social issues. Engaging in research and introductory economics courses spurred my interest in quantitative economics, as I enjoy its rigorous statistical approaches and economic explanations to the research and policy work explored in social policy & public service. I’m most excited by UCI’s vast opportunities in these majors to understand how global systems function in order to learn how to uplift oppressed communities around the world.

When do you plan to finish your degree and what are your plans thereafter?

I plan to finish my degree in June 2026, and I’d like to attend graduate school to further my learning and career opportunities. Although I’m not completely sure of my post-graduation plans, I’m interested in exploring careers in research, data, and academia, as I’m fascinated by the prospect of contributing to research and intellectual discoveries that drive global change.

What would you consider your biggest accomplishments at UCI? Tell us also about any scholarships and involvement activities.

Reflecting on my first year at UCI, I consider excelling in two research assistant positions as a freshman my biggest accomplishment. Coming into UCI, I wasn’t planning on engaging in research so soon, but I found interest in two research projects in fall quarter and decided to apply. I was elated to find out I was accepted as an RA for both projects, and throughout the year, I expanded my social research skills and data literacy. I’m proud that I put myself out there and took advantage of opportunities to grow at UCI while excelling in my research roles and academics.

Apart from the Social Science Alumni Academic Excellence Scholarship, I also earned the Dr. Ryoji Yokoyama Undergraduate Endowed Scholarship. At this year’s UCI Writing Awards, I also won the Best Genre Analysis Essay Award for my paper in Writing 50 analyzing an author’s book on racism in the United States.

Apart from academics, I participated in UCI's intramural soccer league and engaged with the Muslim Student Union (MSU), a club on campus that cultivates a strong Muslim community and educates others about global injustices. My role in MSU entails supporting events such as Anti-Oppression Week that raises awareness about systems and examples of oppression around the world. I also led nightly prayers during the Islamic holy month of Ramadan and volunteered in charity events such as making sandwiches for local communities in need.

Can you share more about your research activities at UCI?

In my first year at UCI, I was a research assistant for two projects in the School of Education. At the Motivation and Identity Research Lab, I analyzed data from a UCI study that seeks to understand how students’ backgrounds and identities impact their academic motivation and success. At the Disrupting Racism Lab, I supported data collection and analysis of a study that works with school districts to comprehensively address racial biases in school practices and policies.

Who has played an important mentorship role in your life thus far and why?

At UCI, my research lead in my Disrupting Racism Lab has played an important mentorship role thus far. Dana is a current Ph.D. student leading the lab, and she’s supported my growth and immersion in research tremendously by taking extra steps to ensure I experience a wide range of the tasks involved in social research, such as field observations, interview transcription, data analysis, meta-syntheses, and more. Under her guidance, I’ve also advanced my professional skills by engaging in important discussions surrounding how to dismantle racism in schools and broader society. As I continue engaging in this lab, I look forward to continuing working with Dana and expanding my research, data, and professional skills.

What challenges or hurdles have you faced in getting to where you are today?

Throughout my experiences in public and higher education, I’ve felt alone and ostracized in an environment with many people who don’t share my cultural and religious identity. As a Muslim, I often feel like an outsider in some of my classes when talking about Islam. Additionally, I’ve felt culturally stifled as a Bangladeshi American since many people around me don’t relate to my experiences and dismiss the uniqueness of my culture. Over time, however, as I deepened my faith, cultural connection, and understanding of how systems in society marginalize minority groups, I began more proudly representing my identity. I respectfully corrected misconceptions of my culture and religion in classes and informed others of the unique discrimination people like me face. Although I’m still working on navigating these struggles today, I’ve felt more intact with my identity while unapologetically representing who I am.

Where can you most often be found on campus?

The Middle Earth study rooms, Langson Library desks by the windows, and Science Library 4th floor are my favorite spots to relax and study with my friends. I love how UCI has so many spots overlooking Aldrich Park, and winding down in the middle of the park after studying is always calming amidst the chaos of classes.

What’s your best memory thus far from your undergraduate experience at UCI?

Walking from Middle Earth to the Cross Cultural Center everyday to break my fast at sunset during Ramadan with other Muslim students led to the best memories I’ve had at UCI so far. Growing up, I spent this holy month and its important evening meals and prayers with my family, but UCI’s Muslim Student Union provided a welcoming community that felt like home. I made some of my closest friends at these events, and being in a group of people with similar backgrounds and interests as me was a special experience that I’m incredibly grateful for.

Any other interesting tidbits you would like to share?

In fear of social ostracization, I often struggle telling people about a central part of my identity and motivation, but in the spirit of authenticity, I’d like to share my accomplishment of memorizing the entire Quran, the holy book of Islam. Completing this feat was a difficult, multi-year process that required countless instances of self-discipline, but it is the most rewarding and character-building experience I’ve ever had. The resilience and intellectually enriching processes of memorizing the Quran built the foundation for my work ethic that fuels my academic and professional success, and the Quran’s emphasis on justice, knowledge, and excellence drives my motivations to maximize my learning at UCI and help others in need.

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