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A Legacy of Gator Greatness

Celebrating Two Graduating Volunteers


By Laura Wagner

“The greatness of a community is most accurately measured  
by the compassionate actions of its members.” – Coretta Scott King



Graduation carries a bittersweet edge, as former students close one important chapter of their lives and prepare to open another. For Dr. Mesias Pedroza, celebrating two seniors’ success also meant saying farewell to two outstanding volunteers—Omar Kahn and Hatoon Badawi.

In spring of 2020, Lecturer of Biology and Chemistry Pedroza launched a service-learning project titled “Learning with Thomas Academy K-12 Tutoring” at St. Charles Borromeo Catholic Church in Houston’s Northline neighborhood. Lockdowns had forced schools to move to online teaching. “The families in this mostly Hispanic neighborhood turned to community centers and churches for help navigating the new online platforms for their children’s schooling,” said Pedroza. “The stress, anxiety, and frustration were significant.” 

Pedroza put out the call to his UHD students, and Biological and Physical Science major Kahn answered. “Omar has been participating in the program since the beginning,” said Pedroza. Kahn’s exemplary leadership skills were notable. He recruited UHD students to volunteer, said Pedroza, adding, “He alsp12 (3)o took on the role of supervisor, guiding new UHD students and directing families and their kids to their respective tutors according to the subject they needed help with.”

Kahn’s favorite part of the project was seeing how excited the students were to attend the sessions. “It felt great to make learning fun for them,” he said, his enthusiasm obvious. “It feels good to do something outside of yourself that’s helping the next generation of students.” He added, "Volunteering helped me stay motivated when school and life got really tough over the past few semesters.”

Biology major Badawi joined in spring 2022. “Hatoon has a gift for developing a bond with her mentees that transforms what could be a basic transactional interaction into a transformative one,” said Pedroza. He described one mentee, Luis, who always insisted on waiting for Badawi to receive his tutoring. “They learn together, not only the subjects they study, but about each other. Luis speaks to Hatoon in Spanish and Hatoon in turn teaches Luis Arabic words,” Pedroza said. “It’s a beautiful display of what guided experience can do to facilitate learning.”

Badawi described Luis as one of the most outgoing students in the project. “He became a little brother to me. He always had a new math topic he wanted to learn, and he wanted the most difficult questions possible,” she said. “Seeing the moment that students finally understand a topic and begin to approach practice problems with more confidence is so exciting.”p15 (2)

At the time the project started, the response from the community was overwhelming, said Pedroza. Parents reported seeing a great effect in their kids, not only in academics, but also from the one-on-one interactions the students had with UHD tutors. The students reported enjoying the sessions because their tutors took time to explain things patiently and were friendly. The sessions continued after the lockdown and the feedback remained positive. 

“This project made a real difference in this community. At a time when external stresses were overwhelming families, these UHD students were able to provide support and help the students stay on track academically,” said Pedroza. “And as children receive tutoring, the parents obtain needed goods such as clothes, household items, books, etc.” The program is supported by Dr. Poonam Gulati from UHD’s Center for Community Engagement and Service Learning as well as different organizations and donors who provide various donations, Pedroza noted.

“This project has sparked a desire to continue volunteering in the community,” said Kahn. “This was the best experience to tap into the Houston community and help out.” He plans to continue with volunteer work as much as he can after graduation, when he’ll be working as an emergency room tech and studying for the Medical College Admission Test (MCAT).

p10 (3)Badawi also found a love for volunteering through the project. “Volunteering is the most meaningful way to give back to the community because it truly comes from the heart,” she said. “And the environment Dr. Pedroza created gives students the opportunity to expand their interests, which is so important for learning.” Her favorite part of the project? “The friendships I’ve built with some of the kids, like Luis,” she said. “And I hope to impart a love for knowledge and learning.” After graduation, Badawi plans to spend a year working, applying to medical school, and, of course, volunteering in her community.

“Omar and Hatoon will be sorely missed by all of us in this program,” said Pedroza. “But I am so proud of the legacy they’re leaving behind, and I know they’ll do their part to continue to support their communities no matter where their futures lead them.”


If you would like to participate in the Learning with Thomas Academy K-12 Tutoring service-learning project, contact Dr. Pedroza at pedrozam@uhd.edu.

About the University of Houston-Downtown

The University of Houston-Downtown (UHD) is the second-largest university in Houston and has served the educational needs of the nation’s fourth-largest city since 1974. As one of four distinct public universities in the University of Houston System, UHD is a comprehensive, four-year university led by President Loren J. Blanchard. Annually, UHD educates approximately 14,000 students, boasts more than 66,000 alumni, and offers 45 bachelor’s degrees, 12 master’s degrees, and 19 online programs within four colleges: Marilyn Davies College of Business, College of Humanities and Social Sciences, College of Public Service, and College of Sciences and Technology. UHD has one of the lowest tuition rates in Texas.

U.S. News and World Report ranked UHD among the nation’s Best Online Bachelor’s Programs for Applied Administration and Best Online Master’s Programs in Criminal Justice, as well as a Top Performer in Social Mobility. The Wall Street Journal/College Pulse ranked UHD one of the best colleges in the U.S. for its 2024 rankings, with notable distinctions: No. 1 for diversity (tied) and No. 3 for student experience. The University is designated as a Hispanic-Serving Institution, a Minority-Serving Institution, and a Military Friendly School. For more information on the University of Houston-Downtown, visit uhd.edu.