In early March, upper school students gathered in Baldwin Hall to hear the campaign speeches of their classmates running for office in our School Council. One after another, each qualified and motivated candidate stood up and professed appreciation for the nurturing environment at Rutgers Prep. Each promised to work with their peers in order to invigorate and improve the upper school. Most mentioned wanting to serve the community that had warmly welcomed them.
Fifteen years ago, RPS students sat in those same bleachers and heard similar sentiments from Adil Syed Ahmed. Back then, Adil was a regular orator on Baldwin Hall’s stage. His classmates and faculty first elected him Treasurer, then Secretary, and finally School Council President. Ralph Avella, our longtime advisor to School Council, recalls Adil serving with dedication, distinction, and passion. As Mr. Avella remembers, “He was committed to involving all members of School Council on every Council endeavor.”
For the past year in particular, Adil has been stumping again, spreading his commitment to community engagement in his adopted hometown of West New York, New Jersey as he runs for the office of Commissioner. The details of the community may be different, but Adil’s message has never wavered—citizens have the right and the responsibility to be involved with and informed about their government.
When he and his wife became homeowners in 2014, Adil learned quickly that civic engagement in West New York was a complicated task. “Government should be about administering services that make people’s lives better” he tells us. However, Adil couldn’t even find information about his local government until he made a donation to a political campaign. “The commissioner reports to our state senator and none of the appointees he or she makes to the board are public.” As a result, a wide gulf exists between the average citizen of West New York and the members of its local government.
That is a gulf that Adil hopes to close. “The town is actually governed by people who don’t live here.” West New York is a town of commuters and the working class. While campaigning, Adil has made a point to meet as many of his neighbors as possible.
Occasionally friends have provided Adil with introductions, such as a recent opportunity to speak with the editor of El Especialito, one of the most widely circulating Spanish newspapers in the United States. More often than not though, Adil has campaigned in the same manner as he once made friends as an upper school freshman—with a friendly greeting and a listening ear.
In response, Adil has enjoyed widespread support from his town of 50,000. His platform, which tackles goals such as financial oversight over the parking authority, labor and workforce development, and support for small businesses, aims to help the community thrive. It also seeks to protect the most vulnerable, addressing the issue of homelessness in the town and the concerns of seniors, as well as those who have expressed fear of political retaliation in a town long mired in cronyism.
“Running for town commissioner has required me to engage locally to understand how things work.” Adil tells us. “People don’t believe in government anymore.” He pauses and reconsiders that idea. “But there’s lots of support for me.”
At Rutgers Prep, we know that this support is well placed. As Mr. Avella says, “Adil is self-motivated, disciplined, reliable, responsible and hard working. He is an outstanding leader. Based on his commitment to the students, faculty and his School, we could have predicted Adil's future in public service since he was in high school.” It’s true that we could see that he was headed in the direction of excellence. Following his exceptional career at Rutgers Prep, Adil earned a bachelor's degree from Columbia University, a certificate in 'Leading Change' from Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government, and a law degree from Fordham Law. Throughout his educational pursuits, Adil worked hard to assemble a wealth of experiences that inform his view as a public servant.
Between undergrad and law school, Adil crossed the country fighting for labor unions, and learning throughout that process. “My parents weren’t labor union people. Working as a union organizer and labor economist taught me about my own privilege.” Starting up a company that specialized in drone advertising him provided a window into the risks and rewards of an entrepreneurial career. His success in the field of law has provided him with perhaps the greatest advantage in serving his wider community. For one, “Being a lawyer lends me a certain amount of credibility with the public.” Out of law school, Adil made strategic choices. His stellar record at Fordham attracted the attention of big firms. He took those job offers, earned a high enough salary to pay back his student loans, allowing him to now focus fully on a career in public service. “Those firms are rooting for me now.” Adil points out, “I am not dependent on the political system for my livelihood.” That makes him an ideal advocate for West New York.
On Tuesday, May 14th, fifteen years after he was inaugurated as the School Council President at Rutgers Prep, Adil Syed Ahmed’s name will appear on the ballot for the office of the Commissioner of West New York. He is eager to get started confronting the issues that have led his community to feel frustrated and underrepresented. In all his endeavors, Adil has emerged as a master problem-solver. That’s a skill he enjoys practicing—“putting the pieces together to pinpoint issues and find solutions.”
Perhaps the only enterprise Adil Syed Ahmed enjoys more is connecting with others. “I wouldn’t be running if people weren’t responding.” He tells us. And what’s next? Adil is not currently planning a career in public office. He believes every citizen should have the chance to be involved. “It’s not something I want to do for the rest of my life—after my term I’d want to step aside.” Here at Rutgers Prep, his first grateful constituency, our School Council is training new leaders to step forward. We hope to see some of the step into the path Adil has forged.