After moving to the United States at the age of 15 from her native country of Iran, Helen Fagan has overcome racism and hatred toward her culture. She said these experiences sparked a desire to treat those around her with equality and kindness.
Fagan, assistant professor of practice in agricultural leadership, education and communication, has used this desire throughout her life by working extensively in human services, creating and leading a diversity counsel in the healthcare system and now by teaching her students at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln how to be inclusive leaders.
On Jan. 28, Fagan was recognized for her work and received the Fulfilling the Dream award at UNL’s MLK Commemorative Celebration.
“It was surreal when I got notified I was being awarded this honor, truly I couldn’t believe it,” she said. “To win something that is in his honor, in his name, saying that I am helping to fulfill that dream was more than words can describe and it touched me at the deepest level of my heart.”
Fagan said she hopes to continue creating a future that honors Martin Luther King, Jr.’s legacy and believes that doing so starts with one person, one interaction at a time.
“I go to the words of Winston Churchill who said, ‘Success is not final, failure is not fatal; it is the will to go on that matters most,’” she said. “For me, it is the will to go on. I want to continue to earn that honor, I want to continue to live that way and inspire others.”
Tori Pedersen, junior agricultural education major, has taken classes taught by Fagan and said it was not surprising to hear that she was a recipient of the award.
“She is such a talented and inspirational person that when I saw that she won the award I was just really happy and glad that other people could see it as well,” Pedersen said.
Pedersen said that Fagan is dedicated to her work and has inspired her and many other students to take a closer look at the biases they hold.
“She has this purpose in life that she wants to share with everybody she meets, and whether it’s one simple conversation or giving a presentation over Zoom and staying on afterward to answer any questions,” Pedersen said. “Everything that she does ties back to this purpose of helping people to understand themselves better and understand other people better and treat others better as a result of it.”
Fagan said that the driving force behind her work is creating a better future for those closest to her.
“Playing with my grandson, seeing his face, seeing who he is and wanting a world that is better, wanting to create opportunities and innovative solutions that help drive change,” she said. “I can’t change people, only people can change themselves. What I can do is ask questions that drive people to go deeper.”
Fagan said that working in support of equality and inclusion can be incredibly straining, and lead her to being diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder in 2007.
“It’s extremely hard to not only do this work but to remain in this space when you see so much going on that is hateful,” she said. “But then, what else do we have? Do we give up and give in to it? That’s not me, that’s not what I’m about.”
Fagan said she wishes to instill an understanding and awareness of biases within others and that questioning what we see as truth in the first place is the ultimate purpose of education.
“As human beings we all have bias and when we don’t come face to face with that bias we are ignoring the fact that it can control us,” she said. “Once we learn more, once we engage with people, then we can begin to really understand them.”
Fagan said it is vital to be understanding of others because we all fail at times.
“Give others grace when they fail because we all fail, we are not perfect,” she said. “We expect people to be perfect on this journey of becoming inclusive and none of us are. It is humbly asking for forgiveness when I fail but also giving that to other people.”