Zain Elwakil ’20, on how triumph and transformation come from struggle

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Zain Elwakil ’20, is an architect, a designer, a storyteller and an entrepreneur. The 22-year old Syracuse architecture student grew up in New York City. He was raised in an Arab household by his two parents, his mother, who was a creative designer, and his father, an architect. Growing up, he remembers, “I always had a creative environment at home. My dad would always be painting, and my mom would be making something. “While he sees his love for architecture and design as independent callings, he acknowledges the tremendous influence his early years played in solidifying these passions.

While growing up a New Yorker, Zain’s parents always encouraged him to stay true to his heritage. The family visited their home in Egypt each summer, and in fact, Elwakilspent his entire high school years overseas, attending an international school in Qatar. Attending this new school sparked a profound transition in his life, “When I moved to Qatar, it was the first time I was in an Arab country. It was the first time I could speak Arabic with my friends, and everyone who was there was like me.”

The experience was invaluable, and its value extended far beyond the classroom. Reflecting on his experience, he remembers, “It was nice to connect the dots and finally have that other part of my culture. It completed the rest of my identity in a way.”

Graduating from high school, a bit more mature and much surer of himself, Zain prepared himself to go back to the United States to attend college at Syracuse University.

“Architects have a huge responsibility to the way we experience the world,” he said when explaining why he chose to pursue an architecture major. His decision was fueled by his interest for the subject, however, his first year of college did not come without its fair share of struggles, “That first semester was the hardest year in my life. I’d never been academically challenged that much.”

There’s a famous quote by Wilma Rudolph which reads, “The triumph cannot be had without the struggle.” While Zain would not describe his early experiences pleasantly, he understands how transformative this stage of his life was, saying, “While that semester was terrible, it was the first time I saw myself enjoying working hard.”                       

Fighting through self-doubt, fatigue and yet another transition, Zain came out on the other side with a clear vision. While continuing to work hard in his studies, developing skills in design and architecture, Elwakildecided to challenge himself in a new way, founding a new movement called the Zuluecho Initiative.

With the Zuluecho Initiative, he wanted to create a platform for ambitious, creative discussion and empowering self-belief.

“Wherever your passion lies, whoever you want to be, whatever you want to do, believe in it and go get it.” This is the mission statement of the initiative, says Zain. It is a platform for him to empower and inspire young people to pursue great things in life. Featuring pieces written by Elwakilhimself, articles on the site touch on critical aspects of creativity, entrepreneurship and self-becoming.

So far, his blog has made an impact, with dozens of articles, growing engagement, and high-quality merchandise. More meaningful than the metrics are the positive reviews he has received from readers.

 “I remember last semester, when I was in Florence, I was having a rough time. I wasn’t enjoying what I was doing anymore, and it wasn’t really healthy for me.” Pushing himself through this difficult time, he remembers, “What really got me is, one day, someone sent me one of my own articles”.

This was a big wakeup call. The experience pushed him to understand that, “Helping people shouldn’t come at the expense of helping myself.” He now understood the importance of seeing the big picture.

For Zain, this big picture involves combining his passions for architecture, design, creativity and storytelling to empower and inspire those around him. The Zuluecho Initiative has created a strong community of young people. He wants to continue using his talents and skills to empower people’s passions and influence broader conversations around society.

 “I don’t want people to remember me for who I am, I want them to remember how I made them feel,” he responds when asked about his legacy. He pursues this legacy by looking for understanding, finding his purpose and staying authentic.

He is multi-talented and his abilities have brought him the admiration of people across the globe, and finds satisfaction in positively affecting others. His goal is not to receive notoriety, fame or tremendous wealth, but rather to lead his followers to, “Believe in the power of their dreams.”

“Architecture is this beautiful connection between art and the real world,” he told me, reflecting on his passion. “The transformation from the imagination to the physical has always been inspiring to me.”

Story by LaunchPad Global Media Fellow Jalen Nash ’20

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