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Building relationships for student and alumni success: Azam Bhatti wins SFU Workplace Excellence Award

March 19, 2024

During his 17 years in SFU’s Department of Economics, Azam Bhatti has transformed the student experience and created a thriving alumni network, one relationship at a time.

Bhatti, Student & Alumni Engagement Advisor, has been recognized with a 2023 Workplace Excellence Award for his outstanding contributions to Simon Fraser University (SFU).

In 2007 Bhatti started at SFU in the economics department as a part-time advisor. Back then the department’s advising model followed a traditional, transactional approach: providing academic advice to students who sought help. But Bhatti had majored in economics himself “a thousand years ago” at Carleton University and remembers, “I was scared of my department.” He didn’t take advantage of student advising or any workshops offered and graduated with little idea of what to do next.

At SFU, Bhatti aimed to provide students with the things he wished he had received. Bringing a background as an entrepreneur and business owner he saw a lot of room for the department to grow. He remembers Gwen Wild, the department manager at the time, telling him, “do what you need to do.”

First, Bhatti set out to make the department more approachable. Rather than waiting for students to come to him he went to classrooms to introduce himself. He reached out to specific groups of students and offered helpful program advice.

Bhatti focused on building relationships, which for someone as personable and friendly as Bhatti seems to come naturally. He has a smile for everyone, remembers students he has not seen in years, and treats everyone with the same warm welcome.

“For me, advising is really about understanding that every individual is unique,” says Bhatti. “Even if they’re taking the same classes, their profiles are different, their goals are different and therefore their outcomes will be different. Understanding this is what builds relationships with students.”

“For me, advising is really about understanding that every individual is unique... Understanding this is what builds relationships with students.” - Azam Bhatti

Students gravitate to Bhatti, trusting his knowledge and advice. Economics alumnus Matthew Sebastiani recalls, “I always felt assured leaving Azam’s office that I was on the right track. His patience, knowledge, and passion for student success is demonstrated in everything he does. He is never too busy to speak with students; even outside his official advising hours, if he was in his office, he would put things down to speak with us.”

Bhatti also wanted to ensure that students left SFU prepared for what was next. “Azam’s vision is one in which advising, mentoring, and professional development are central to the program,” says economics professor and former Undergraduate Chair Brian Krauth. “It was a thoroughly ambitious goal given the resources and expectations of the time. Azam’s perseverance and salesmanship have been essential in building this vision.”

Bhatti’s favourite part of the job is seeing his ideas become something tangible. He speaks fondly of one of the first big events he organized back in 2008, which he named the Dean’s Welcome. He wanted to provide an Ivy-league type of experience for undergraduate students. He had formal invitations printed and delivered to every student. The FASS Dean attended, along with faculty members and keynote speakers. With over 300 students in attendance, “this was when I knew we were on to something,” he says.

“Other things I’ve tried have been a total flop,” Bhatti says, laughing. His approach to building engagement activities is one of trial and error. Bhatti is not afraid to try something new, and if it doesn’t work he moves quickly to the next idea.

"Bhatti is a perpetual optimist and relentless advocate for students." - Colin Fowler, alumnus and former ESS president

Bhatti’s initiative and perseverance have led the department to an impressive level of student and alumni engagement. The SFU Economics Alumni LinkedIn group currently boasts more than 1600 members. Bhatti can go down the list and connect the dots between individuals. He is humble, but many SFU economics alumni careers can be traced back to Bhatti and his networking skills. When he learns of an opportunity he can quickly assess which student might be a good fit.

Bhatti also encourages students he has helped to pay it forward. He often has alumni contacting him with job opportunities for recent graduates. “Our alumni understand the rigour of our program,” Bhatti says, “so they know if they hire from us they’ll be hiring quality candidates.”

Alumni also help Bhatti when he asks. He has a willing pool of talented alumni he can pull from for co-op opportunities and student engagement events. In the past five years, for example, Bhatti has organized more than 30 engagement events for students ranging from annual visits to companies such as RBC and Best Buy, alumni talks on specific industries or programs such as a career in finance or how to successfully apply to Harvard Business School.

Every program he offers was informed by conversations with alumni. “They tell me what they’re doing, what other graduates are doing,” he explains. “And then I prepare students for the reality of what’s out there.”

Every spring the SFU Economics Alumni Social sells out and fills a downtown venue. “These alumni events are well-attended, well-appreciated and a lot of fun,” Bhatti says.

The Economics Student Society (ESS) Career Night, developed with Bhatti’s help, is another annual highlight for the department. It just hit its eight year and has provided an excellent networking and learning opportunity for undergraduate students.

Bhatti’s support and encouragement of the ESS "allows us to increase our outreach and impact on students,” says alumnus Colin Fowler, former ESS president. Bhatti “is a perpetual optimist and relentless advocate for students. He served as a fantastic support pillar and sounding board for the Economics Student Society.”

These strong alumni connections to the department have translated into financial support, with successful alumni such as Pamela Yoon and Glenn Berg donating to fund annual undergraduate awards.

 “Azam’s work has been nothing short of transformational.” - Anke Kessler, Department Chair

Department Chair Anke Kessler says, “Azam’s tireless advocacy on behalf of students has shifted how our department views of students’ needs and has helped define our primary (learning) goals toward a more career-oriented perspective. His work has been nothing short of transformational.” Recently he helped develop a new Career Pathways page for incoming students.

When asked the secret to his career success Bhatti explains modestly, “Anyone can do it. It’s a long game – the key is consistency.” He recognizes the support of his team advising team members Anthea Pasin and Sarah Turner and notes that everyone brings strengths that create the best outcome.

Bhatti is grateful to Anke Kessler who nominated him for this award and to all the managers, administrators and faculty members who have supported him over the years. He also thanks previous department communicators Rebecca Ho and Carmen Chin who were instrumental in helping him achieve his vision.

 “I get to do what I love and what I’m good at, and it helps people,” he says. “What’s better than that?”

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