Leadership in the time of COVID-19
Aaron Yared is no stranger to competition, whether on the football field or the debate stage. The latter set him on the path to becoming one of the most dedicated leaders and strongest advocates for graduate and professional students across the University of Washington.
As president of the UW’s Graduate and Professional Student Senate (GPSS), Yared represents the interests of some 15,000 students, working with partners across campus to ensure the best possible academic experiences for classmates and colleagues. That may be a lot already, but Yared says his ultimate goal is even broader: ensuring every person in America has the right to an education.
“As an undergraduate, I started looking into public education as a whole, not just in Washington but across the country, and you see just how underfunded it is, how much of a problem it is,” says Yared, a 2L UW Law student. “My goal, whether as a lawyer or in government, is making sure there are no more excuses and we can actually get to work on fixing the system.”
“My goal, whether as a lawyer or in government, is making sure there are no more excuses and we can actually get to work on fixing the system.”
Yared has always exhibited natural leadership qualities, though he never spent much time seeking the spotlight. A first-generation American, Yared says his main aspiration was always to go to college — a goal his parents reiterated early and often.
As a standout offensive lineman in high school, football seemed like the clearest path to get there. But while a career at the collegiate level didn’t work out, Yared found a new interest as an undergraduate at UW Bothell with the university’s Speech and Debate Society.
He was a natural, competing and placing in national tournaments while going on to become the organization’s president. He also served in various roles with Associated Students of the University of Washington Bothell (ASUWB), and it was during this time he developed interests in public policy, economics and law.
By homing in on education policy, Yared began to focus his studies on the field in which he wants to make the biggest impact.
“I realized that I hadn’t really had an awakening intellectually until I got into college,” Yared says. “Debate opened my eyes to the greater world of possibilities, and I started to realize there's something to advocacy and helping people. That was the moment I decided I wanted to go to law school.”
A Time for Protest
His work with GPSS, which began in winter 2020, was almost immediately turned upside. By the time he was elected president in June, U.S. COVID-19 infections surpassed 2 million cases, and the country seemed to be coming apart at the seams as protests for racial justice raged across the country.
“Debate opened my eyes to the greater world of possibilities, and I started to realize there's something to advocacy and helping people.”
Yared was there on the ground in Seattle, one of the nation’s earliest epicenters of the protest movement. He allowed himself to express his frustration and stand with fellow members of the community in solidarity against the racial violence that has plagued this country since its inception. Then he went to work.
“There's a time for protest and there's a time for conversation,” Yared says. “When I was in the first protests in Seattle, that was a moment for me where I could really yell to my heart's content and let it all out. But then once I did, I said, okay, now let's start working on solutions.”
In the months since, Yared has played the role of a measured leader with a steady hand on the wheel. It is in his nature to take this approach, and it serves him well. His honesty helps earn him trust; his composure helps earn him confidence.
Much of his work is about keeping the lights on, as he puts it, but it boils down to being faithful to the voice of the students on behalf of whom he works. At its core, his job is about fostering community at a time when it has never been more difficult — or more important. That, he says, is a big part of the legacy he wants to leave for future classes of law students.
“Because we spent so much of our 1L year, and our entire 2L year, away from the school, it's going to be very hard to rebuild that community from scratch,” Yared says. “But it also creates this unique opportunity for us to change the culture at its very base. It's a question of how and who are going to be the people who are willing to step up.”