Ahmad Khanijahani knew he wanted to focus on health care. He knew he wanted to go as far in education as possible.

His journey brought him from Iran to Orlando; Khanijahani is one of 15 international students currently enrolled in the Doctoral Program in Public Affairs at the University of Central Florida.

“We don’t have something specific like public affairs [back home],” he said. “The closest we have is governmental management.”

The doctoral program is an interdisciplinary program that was launched in 1998, as a response to students’ request for a program that better helped them understand and solve social issues.

The program has four key focuses: criminal justice, health services management and research, public administration and social work. The unique interdisciplinary approach is a major draw for students, both nationally and internationally, said Jessica Lovelace, academic support service coordinator.

“The fact that you have a program that is there to solve social problems is probably the most exciting part of the program,” she said.

Thirty-three international students have graduated from the program so far, representing countries such as Jamaica, Ethiopia, Canada, Taiwan and Iran.

Turkey has had the most students graduate; 55 percent of graduates hailed from Turkey, thanks to connections with former graduates working in government in Turkey and talking about the program.

“It’s quite extraordinary to know we have a ripple effect that is worldwide, not just in the U.S.,” said Robyne Stevenson, interim director for the program.

Many students complete the program feeling empowered to tackle social issues they are most passionate about, Lovelace said.

“When you see people use resources around them to solve a problem that is real to them, that’s what is exciting,” she said. “In master’s degree (programs), you are learning about the problem, but in Ph.D. (programs), you’re taking control.”

That’s how Khanijahani feels; he recently completed his third year in the health services track. He earned his bachelor’s degree in health care management and his master’s degree in health economics in Iran before coming to UCF.

He hopes to get involved with research and become a faculty member, preferably in the states, upon graduation, empowering others to be world changers.

“You see these problems are interconnected with each other,” Khanijahani said. “You cannot just pick one problem to solve. It’s not like a math problem where you can only solve for ‘x’ or ‘z.’ You cannot do that in society.”

Stevenson said that the program offers students a unique opportunity to engage in community issues common worldwide.

“They want to address a social problem; something out there in the world that needs to be addressed with their professional expertise,” Stevenson said.

Hoda Fotovvat is another student from Iran enrolled in the doctoral program, following the health services track. With a background in social work and a master’s degree in health care administration and research, she recently completed her second year.

Like Khanijahani, Fotovvat desires to become a faculty member in the United States, working within the diversity of ideas and cultures the states offer, when she completes her degree.

“I like this culture of diversity,” she said about UCF. “It’s really great and we should really appreciate that.”

Coming to America has presented its fair share of difficulties, though; the biggest hurdle was developing stronger language skills.

“I listened to lectures on YouTube, I tried to improve my speaking skills and my listening skills,” Fotovvat said. “That was a great, huge barrier at the start of my first semester.”

But that did not stop her from putting her best foot forward and getting as much out of the doctoral program as possible. Instead, Fotovvat has used every obstacle and opportunity to move forward.

“I got a lot of good experience here and a lot of encouragement from American people,” she said. “We’ve got a lot of good friends here, even American friends. I prefer to stay here and face those challenges and get the best for my future.”