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Rising Again: Thunderbird school celebrates 75 years, opens new building

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By Annika Tomlin

The Thunderbird School of Global Management has a rich history that spans 75 years. 

On April 8, the school celebrated the grand opening of its new Downtown Phoenix building, named the Francis & Dionne Najafi Global Headquarter of the Thunderbird School of Global Management.

More than 2,500 celebrants, including Phoenix Mayor Kate Gallego, ASU President Michael Crow and Thunderbird Dean Dr. Sanjeev Khagram, visited to enjoy the global reunion festivities.

The ceremony began with a presentation of the flags of countries represented by students who attend the school. Afterward, Robert Stone, former Gila River Indian Community lieutenant governor, blessed the facility. 

Khagram began his opening remarks with, “Today we are celebrating three amazing accomplishments. First, we are celebrating 75 years of Thunderbird history. … We are also celebrating the last seven to eight years, and particularly the last four years when we joined Arizona State University.” 

Formerly an independent, private institution, it was acquired by ASU in 2014. Khagram said the final accomplishment was this grand opening.

At ASU’s Downtown Phoenix campus, the 110,000-square-foot, five-floor building features state-of-the-art flexible classrooms; 1,600 square feet of displays; and regional heritage lounges with art donated by alumni from Africa, Asia, Latin America and Europe. 

The fifth floor has rooftop views of the Phoenix skyline, while the Thunderbird Pub includes interior design elements that capture the spirit of Thunderbird’s original campus in Glendale with a look toward the future.

“There are 20 million pixels of direct-view LED screens that showcase presentations and events from around the world,” Khagram says about the school’s interior. “We have a Hollywood, Bollywood, Nollywood green room studio.

“We have a full XR production and development studio, volumetric capture, digital tables.”

During a prerecorded digital presentation discussing their $25 million contribution to Thunderbird, alumni Francis and Dionne Najafi announced a new global initiative to educate and empower 100 million learners by 2030.

“What we are trying to do is provide an education to a population that has not had this opportunity,” says Dionne, a 2006 Thunderbird graduate.

“We want to help women and children, too, because women typically in a lot of these countries don’t have the opportunity to be educated.

“My hope, my desire is that we are going to make a huge ripple effect and change the trajectory of girls going forward in this world.”

Francis, who graduated in 1977, added, that they want to provide access to “quality education online at no charge.” The classes will translate to 40 languages, Francis adds.

Thunderbird will offer an accredited online Global Management and Entrepreneurship certificate consisting of five world-class courses. The Najafis’ goal is to have 70% of the 100 million students be women and young women.

“We are privileged to be able to be part of this initiative,” Dionne says. “I think we’ve been very fortunate in our lives, and we really want to make an impact, and we felt that Thunderbird was the best way to do it. We felt that real change and impact through Thunderbird.”

Francis adds, “Given the fact that we have access to education as a basic human right, and being an immigrant, as a couple, it is a humbling experience, and we are grateful for it.”

During the event, the Najfis thanked Gallego, Crow and Khagram for making the initiative possible.

Crow’s speech shared the vast history of Thunderbird and its creation following World War II.

“Thunderbird is an institution, a product of a process of evolution that has been going on for hundreds of years in the modernization of the way that the peoples of the planet could come together and exchange together and trade together,” Crow says.

“Thunderbird emerged as not a new West Point, not a new Air Force Academy, not a new Sandhurst or some other place to train future military leaders at the end of the war. That isn’t what Thunderbird emerged to be. Thunderbird emerged to be a place in which leaders might come together from around the world to figure out how they might interact with each other and build our species forward without conflict fighting, without death and the acquisition of land or movement into a country just because you think you can do it. And so here we sit 75 years after that process, and Thunderbird is alive.”

Gallego shared a similar sentiment.

“Phoenix has been the fastest-growing city in the country. We’ve been excited to welcome people from all over the globe, but we feel like the global community does not know Phoenix. Thunderbird will be our key partner in doing that.”

She adds Phoenix is committed to financially backing Thunderbird in its pursuit to be a global headquarters for the city at large.

“Thunderbird has been with us as well as ASU on this journey to really transform our city,” Gallego says. “We are becoming a higher wage, more educated, more global community, and we are so grateful to Thunderbird for being with us on that journey.”

She concluded her speech with, “When we look back on all our times in leadership, whatever your role is, we think about a real pivot point for Phoenix with the help of the mythical thunderbird. The mythical phoenix is rising.”

Phoenix has “resettled more refugees,” and Gallego adds she is proud to tell Khagram’s story to inspire other refugees to see “what is possible in Phoenix.”

“For a refugee kid from Uganda, it has been the greatest honor of my lifetime to be part of this great experiment,” Khagram says. “Our Thunderbird global family, our Arizona State family, it has really taken everyone to get us where we are. I am so deeply grateful to be part of this and for each and every one of you who helped make it come to life, for bringing it back and taking it forward.” CT

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