Sassan Alizadeh ’81
When Sassan Alizadeh arrived as a student at St. Sebastian’s in September 1979, it was under the most unusual circumstances. At the time, his native country, Iran, was in a state of chaos as a result of the Iranian Revolution. Sassan, his aunt and cousin, Ramin Ghafari ’81, were among the many who fled the terror and came to the United States. Only a year later, the Iran-Iraq War broke out in September 1980. His father, a member of the Iranian Army, had no choice but to remain until the war was over and his mother stayed with her husband for a number of years.
Sassan settled in Brookline, MA, with Ramin and his aunt. His older brother was nearby, having arrived two years prior to study at Tufts University. Although Brookline’s public high school had a great reputation, Sassan’s parents and aunt decided that a private school would be the best fit for the two boys. “My parents thought that a Catholic school, which is a bit more structured and has more caring and supervision for the student, would be better for us since they wouldn’t be here,” recalled Sassan. In addition to the structure, Sassan’s parents were drawn to St. Sebastian’s academic rigor and reputation for having graduates matriculate to excellent colleges.
Sassan and Ramin, both 15 years old, began at St. Sebastian’s as juniors. Neither spoke English very well, and they were the only foreign students, creating a big challenge for these two Muslim boys to integrate into the radically different setting of a Catholic independent school. “The faculty members were not easy on us, but they understood where we were coming from,” noted Sassan. “They really tried to adjust us to this new environment and also the new environment to us.” Meanwhile, things continued to swirl in turmoil in his homeland—where his parents remained—as the 1979 Revolution was followed by the war with Iraq, a conflict that ultimately lasted eight years and devastated both countries. “St. Sebastian’s was a comforting zone for us.”
The guidance of mentors such as Morris Kittler and Fr. Riepe, as well as the small class sizes and customized curriculum, enabled Sassan and Ramin to excel academically. Indeed, St. Sebastian’s ability to tailor the curriculum to the boys’ needs was another major factor in choosing the School. Sassan was far more advanced than his classmates in certain subjects, particularly math, physics and chemistry, and needed extra attention in other subjects such as English and History. The faculty met him where he was at and pushed him to learn and advance in all areas, despite the language barrier. “My 12th grade English teacher forced me to memorize Shakespeare’s ‘to be or not to be,’” remembers Sassan. “She wouldn’t back down; she made me actually memorize the entire text and I had to recite it.”
Following his graduation from St. Sebastian’s in 1981, Sassan attended Tufts along with Ramin. In just two and a half years, he graduated magna cum laude with a degree in electrical engineering. Sassan credits St. Sebastian’s and the customized education he received as an Arrow with helping him achieve this impressive feat. Sassan later received a master’s degree in electrical engineering from Tufts.
Sassan then went on to receive an MBA from the Wharton School and a PhD in Economics from the University of Pennsylvania through a joint degree program. While at Wharton, he began to work with one of the world’s leading economists to develop an innovative hedge fund strategy, one that required a great deal of mathematics and economic theory. This three-year project, along with his academic background, laid an excellent foundation for a career in the hedge fund business. Sassan joined a proprietary trading group at Bear Stearns and later in 2003, joined Highbridge Capital Management, which was acquired by JP Morgan a few years later. Eventually, he was running the company’s multibillion dollar Quantitative Global Macro and Systematic Commodity hedge fund business. In 2014, Sassan launched his own company, QSquared Capital. Meanwhile, he has kept one foot in the world of academia, teaching at NYU Tandon School of Engineering in the Department of Finance and Risk Engineering since 2000.
Sassan recently made a generous gift to St. Sebastian’s endowment to fund a scholarship and established the Alizadeh Most Improved Student Award. “When I decided to establish this award and scholarship, I said to myself, as an educator, what is our job? Our job is really not to have the best student come in and be very good. Educators are supposed to take a student who wasn’t as strong and try to make him much better,” said Sassan. “It’s not about the level. I’m much more interested in the slope.”
The award will be presented annually to a member of the 11th grade who has shown the most growth between his freshman and junior years at St. Sebastian’s. The first Alizadeh Most Improved Student Award was presented at the Undergraduate Awards Assembly in May 2018. Supporting the School’s endowment is Sassan’s way of saying “thank you” to the school that helped him to adjust to his new home and succeed academically. “The things that St. Sebastian’s did for me personally were quite significant and for that I am grateful.”