’Transformative work and compassionate character’: Portrait of a true Bruin

Courtesy of Ihab Shahawi Alumnus Ihab Shahawi with his grandson at a UCLA basket
Courtesy of Ihab Shahawi Alumnus Ihab Shahawi with his grandson at a UCLA basketball game.
Health + Behavior

Ihab Shahawi found his passion at UCLA - helping people affected by autism

Key takeaways

  • Ihab Shahawi fell in love with UCLA as a kid in New Jersey thanks to a television ad. Several years later, he earned his degree from the university in psychology.
  • Shahawi’s assisted living homes were among the first in the United States to use applied behavior analysis and positive supports to help individuals with autism and intellectual or developmental disabilities.
  • Shahawi’s pledge to UCLA will create an endowed fund to support the psychology department, create a fund to support research pertinent to autism spectrum disorders or other intellectual and developmental disabilities, and name a classroom in Pritzker Hall.

Some love stories are lifelong. Take, for instance, Ihab Shahawi and UCLA.

Born in Cairo, Egypt, and raised in New Jersey, Shahawi happened to catch an ad for UCLA during a college basketball game on TV at age 10. Dazzled, he vowed to his single father that’s where he’d go to college, distance be damned.

"He said, ’That’s great,’ you know, just pacifying his son but being supportive, right? But then four years later, he came to Southern California for his best friend’s wedding and fell in love with the area - and a bridesmaid," Shahawi said. "They got married, and we ended up moving. I was so excited that when the time came, I filled out only one college application - you can guess where - and sent it in myself."

Not only was he admitted, but Shahawi immediately dove into his Bruin dream in the fall of 1979. In his first quarter, he joined the Theta Chi fraternity and made the varsity wrestling team; in his second, he realized how passionate he was about pursuing psychology. But it was a course in behavior modification with famed scientist Ivar Lovaas that would send Shahawi down his future professional path.

Getting the opportunity to join Lovaas’ lab as a senior, Shahawi spent a year working with children and families affected by autism spectrum disorders and quickly realized this was his passion. Although he couldn’t afford to go to graduate school, he discovered a new way in to the field thanks to a fraternity brother. This friend’s father happened to be clinical psychologist Gary LaVigna, who co-founded the Institute for Applied Behavior Analysis with his colleague Tom Willis, a former teaching assistant of Lovaas’. LaVigna and Willis’ innovative, non-aversive approach would transform lives around the globe.

Shahawi was offered a position as a direct care staff member in their first supported living home; within a few months he was promoted to a supervisor role tasked with growing the program. And he succeeded: In one year they went from three young adults in the program to almost 30.

After a few years working for LaVigna and Willis, Shahawi gained additional experience by leaving IABA with their blessing to work in a larger facility, overseeing more than 100 clients and 100 staff members. Then he made a bold decision.

"I decided it was time to open my own facility working with the most behaviorally challenging individuals with autism and intellectual or developmental disabilities," he said. "I did some more research and found that the highest need was with teenagers, so I decided to focus on them."

Shahawi’s first patients were four teenagers from the about-to-close Camarillo State Hospital. (Literally as Shahawi got the young men settled in the car, the staff locked and closed the facility for good behind them.) The eventful first day didn’t stop there. When Shahawi finally got them to their new assisted living home and began unloading the car, one of the teenagers, who had arranged to be met there, jumped out and got into a parked car and sped off.

"Before any of us even got in the house, we had already lost one, never to be seen again by us or the regional center. That was the bad news," he said. "The good news: We were able to get the other three settled in and set up a program for them. It became successful and they were successful - each of them stayed with us until they either were able to move home with family or to another home with less support because they were all doing so well."

Housing up to five people per assisted living home, Shahawi’s facilities were among the first in the United States to take a particularly groundbreaking and effective approach 24/7.

"Our difference from others now and in the past is a purely positive approach, no aversives or negatives whatsoever," he said. "We call it the multi-element behavior supports model, which is a combination of applied behavior analysis, positive behavior supports and a person-centered/whole person approach."

Their results were so impressive that Shahawi went on to earn an MBA from the UCLA Anderson School of Management and was asked to open more and more homes, ultimately topping off at 73 facilities in California and Washington. But after 25 years of success, Shahawi and his wife Vivian, who came aboard to run the operations and financial side, made the difficult decision to sell the full-time residential facilities with the intention of stepping back.

Life had other plans, however. Shahawi’s old mentors, LaVigna and Willis, were looking to retire and personally asked Shahawi to purchase and take over IABA, bringing him almost completely full circle. Thinking of that moment - and of the journey that got him there - Shahawi was proud to finish the loop by going back to his first love.

Three years ago, Shahawi joined the department of psychology’s philanthropic board of advisors, and this year, he made a substantial pledge to UCLA to create an endowed fund to support the department of psychology’s greatest needs, to create a fund to support research pertinent to autism spectrum disorders or other intellectual and developmental disabilities, and to name classroom 1531 in Pritzker Hall.

"We are so proud of Ihab Shahawi’s remarkable example embodying the highest ideals of our department and university in his transformative work and compassionate character," said Annette Stanton, distinguished professor and chair of the department of psychology. "His generous gifts, invaluable partnership and wise board leadership are already creating a powerful ripple effect, and we are deeply grateful."

Shahawi has come a long way from working at the Carl’s Jr. on Las Tunas Boulevard in San Gabriel to earn $600 - his entire life savings - the summer before college. Sometimes he even points the restaurant out to his kids and grandkids when they drive by and talks about what it felt like for him to be on the cusp of living his dream. The entire family has absorbed UCLA as part of its history, too.

"All of my children went to good universities, but I didn’t get that wish that one of them would follow in my Bruin footsteps - none of them got accepted to UCLA," Shahawi said with a laugh. "But the wonderful consolation prize is that I’m able to help current and future Bruins. It’s not exaggerating to say that I’m still obsessed with UCLA. I want to stay as involved with my school and continue to give back as much as I can in every way."