Global storyteller AJ Naddaff ’19 named Knight-Hennessy Scholar

He had spent the previous winter in Beirut, on an internship at the Associated Press. Forced to return to his parents’ home near Boston by the COVID-19 pandemic, he contacted Rebecca Joubin, president and professor of Arabic studies at Davidson. Within days, they raised enough money to pay for one year’s school fees for 40 children in one of Beirut’s most deprived neighborhoods.

It wasn’t the first time that Naddaff’s human instincts prompted him to act on behalf of people in crisis. Stanford University’s prestigious Knight-Hennessy Scholars program is betting it won’t be the last and has selected Naddaff for its 2022 cohort.

Created in 2016, the Knight-Hennessy Scholars program is the brainchild of John Hennessy, president of Stanford from 2000 to 2016, and Nike founder Phil Knight. The program creates transformational leaders who bring a collaborative, multidisciplinary, and multicultural perspective to global challenges.

Knight-Hennessy Scholars receive funding for three years of graduate work. They also participate in the King Global Leadership Program. Through workshops, conferences, and collaborative projects, Knight-Hennessy Scholars prepare to tackle some of the world’s most pressing challenges, including global climate change, health and education policy.

Child in a candy store

Naddaff’s talent as a writer and linguist emerged early at Davidson.

“From his freshman year, AJ reminded me of a grad student,” Joubin said. “If you gave him an opportunity, he never took it for granted. He would hear something in a class or read something in a text and he would explore it. He just really wanted to soak up the knowledge.

Naddaff confesses that he would often beg at the registrar’s office for advice on courses.

“There were so many good choices,” he said. “I was like a kid in a candy store.”

Naddaff arrived in Davidson after Syria descended into a fierce civil war. He developed a particular interest in Syrian artists and writers, many of whom had fled to Turkey or Western Europe.

“They talk more openly about eternal existential issues,” he said. “There’s something more visceral and human about them.”

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