On track for success

A man and a woman with a young man hugging and smiling

Sport was the main draw when it came to educating Hazem Ben Gacem’s son.

“An obsessed athlete” is how the private equity executive describes 15-year-old Khalil. On their first visit to ACS Cobham, the facilities did not disappoint, as Hazem recalls, likening them at the time to a sports complex.

In just over a year since his son joined ACS, something is not the same. “We’ve seen a profound change in our son. His pursuit for education, for excellence, for being part of something he believes in.” Excelling on the track and field team has been great training for what Khalil did next: a feat of epic endurance in an 100km ‘ultra’ marathon in the southern Tunisian desert where scenes from Star Wars were filmed.

“Athletics is what excites him, but the more important part of it is this notion of ‘I’ve got a purpose, I’ve got a mission, I’ve got a challenge and I want to conquer it.’ When a film crew asked Khalil what motivated him to run the marathon, he paused and said ‘I find that challenges tell me more about myself,’ which I thought was terrific, and I had to remind myself that he’s only fifteen.

“When I look at his maturity, his confidence, his clarity of direction, I don’t remember being like that as a 15-year-old! For me, schooling is more about the development of character and the person than getting an A grade in math. If this environment can create these future-driven boys and girls, that’s fantastic.”

Education was the unexpected trigger that set in motion a chain of events for Hazem’s family. Coming from a large Tunisian farming family, with 127 cousins, Hazem’s father was the first child in his village to go to school. Having lost sight in one eye when he was young, Hazem’s grandfather did not feel his son would be very helpful on the farm and thought that school was the better option.  After doing well throughout school, he went on to attend university in Morocco and returned to Tunisia to work for the Ministry of Finance. In the late 1960s he won a Ford Foundation scholarship for international students to study in US universities, which opened doors for him, and he has been able to give back to him native country.

“From my father’s story, you can hear first-hand that it’s not about giving clothing, food or charity, but to my mind there’s no better support that being able to give people the mental tool to go out and do great things. It’s sustainable and hopefully creates a cycle where others create the same opportunities.”

Harvard-educated Hazem is committed to supporting international education opportunities for Tunisian students and contributes to a Harvard scholarship specifically for students from the country.   Hazem and his wife are also proud to lend their support to ACS after being impressed with the approach to education in their first conversations with the school with Middle School Principal, Rob Crowther, and then-High School Principal, Chris Walker.

“Their approach to inspiring and motivating children and their humility in their views and perspectives was a great first impression. And when I look at Khalil, and how he’s evolving as a young man, there’s a certain ethos that the school follows in its development of children and I can see how it bears fruit.” Hazem talks about his son’s generation being more thoughtful and engaged with social issues, which are things they debate in their ACS classrooms. “I like to think that ACS produces so much more well-rounded human beings: academically and activities outside the classroom, but also their development and their notion of ethics and morality.”

He sees his gift to ACS as “one brick” and something which he hopes will “inspire others to do the same to create momentum. Giving back needs to be something that is part of life. For some it’s time, for others it’s capital, and for others it’s connections, and there is nothing more rewarding.”