Graduating with Honors: Kayvan Zahiri

Posted by Reeve Staff in Life After Paralysis on June 30, 2021 # Lifestyle

Kayvan Zahiri entered San Francisco's Balboa High School in 2017 with ambitious goals, including the not-so-easy task of earning straight A's. Four years later, despite a pandemic that closed classrooms for much of his junior and senior years, Zahiri will graduate with a perfect 4.0 —and that's far from his only achievement.

This spring, the 18-year-old was honored as a co-valedictorian at Balboa, and one of just six graduating seniors in the San Francisco Unified School District to receive the Superintendent's 21st Century Awards.

The award, which comes with a scholarship, stems from Zahiri's inspired work in an animation course. While other students completed assignments using their hands, Zahiri —who is paralyzed from the waist up – operated the computer software with a joystick-controlled by his foot.

"It was definitely a highlight of high school," Zahiri says of both the scholarship and class. "I'd lost that feeling of creativity, and I wasn't sure if I would be able to get it back. This was definitely hopeful."

When he was nine years old, Zahiri had a large tumor removed from his spine. As a result of the surgery, he was no longer able to walk or breathe on his own.

Growing up, Zahiri cultivated a passion for sports. Even as he focused on his studies throughout high school, Zahiri made time to play power soccer, take weekly cycle rides with his family, and cheer on his beloved local teams, including the Golden State Warriors and San Francisco Giants.

It wasn't always easy to be a student who used a wheelchair and ventilator. The physical demands of navigating high school wore on Zahiri, but he did not allow the fatigue to affect his academic efforts. And classmates sometimes treated him differently, Zahiri says, adding that many seemed shy about approaching him.

"People see you differently because of the wheelchair," he says. "But I would say we're pretty much the same, just in different situations. It's obviously a big part of me, but it definitely doesn't define who I am."

Now, Zahiri is setting new goals for his future, including to one day earn his Ph.D. and also to participate in studies that may help him regain function in his arms. "I haven't given up hope on that," he says.

This fall, Zahiri will attend the University of San Francisco, where he plans to study psychology.

"I wanted to find a way to help people," he says. "And I think psychology is a good path for me where I can make a positive impact on people's lives. You don't really see someone who is disabled who is also a psychologist or therapist that often. So that could be something that I could do to make a difference."

In his valedictorian speech, Zahiri challenged students to continue to seek knowledge, to fiercely advocate for social justice, and to always be inclusive. He ended with a quote from basketball superstar Stephen Curry, one of his favorite athletes: "Be the best version of yourself in anything that you do. You don't have to live anybody else's story."

The Reeve Foundation offers the services of a college transition counselor for people living with paralysis. The Reeve Foundation offers three hours with the counselor at no charge to the client.

The National Paralysis Resource Center website is supported by the Administration for Community Living (ACL), U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) as part of a financial assistance award totaling $8,700,000 with 100 percent funding by ACL/HHS. The contents are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily represent the official views of, nor an endorsement, by ACL/HHS, or the U.S. Government.