Students at University of Maryland Global Campus (UMGC) sometimes cite uncommon reasons for pursuing degrees. Yasha Taginya had an especially unusual trigger: weight loss.
Taginya said his 120-pound weight loss made something inside his head click. He went from an unmotivated person who struggled for years to complete college classes to one who was driven to succeed academically.
Taginya completed his bachelor’s degree in general studies in March, taking entrepreneurship and business management courses. Now, he says, he is ready to expand his own business.
“My mental focus completely changed,” Taginya said of the weight loss. “I thought I would just lose weight and look better. But tasks like school and work, to me they seem so easy and achievable now compared to working out for two hours a day and eating salads when you’re hungry. I was able to change my brain.”
Taginya was raised in suburban Maryland. His father was an immigrant from Iran who came to the United States to study and stayed after the fall of the shah. His mother is from El Salvador, and has lived in the United States since she was an 11-year-old. They met while studying at the University of the District of Columbia. They both worked at the same drycleaners in D.C.’s Woodley Park neighborhood and, as it happens in many immigrant stories, they decided to buy the business. They slowly expanded it, all while raising five children: Taginya and his twin sister, born in 1994, followed closely by triplets.
Taginya is fluent in Spanish, Farsi, and English. But he did not share his siblings’ academic drive. He dropped out of Ohio University and took classes at Montgomery College, accomplishing little while working at the family drycleaners.
“I never went to class,” he said. “I would sign up for courses and kept failing, digging myself deeper into a hole.”
At the same time, his weight began to skyrocket, he said.
“I was fat my entire life,” he said. “But once I hit 18 to 19, I started gaining a lot of weight. By the time I was 21 or 22, I was just huge, topping out at 295 pounds.”
One day a friend came with Taginya to a gym. When they found the basketball court in use, they decided to lift weights. That soon became a regular activity, two hours a day, for Taginya–even when his friend dropped out. Then, Taginya said, he decided he needed to change his diet. He ate only salads without dressing for months. He didn’t have a carbohydrate for nine months.
“It was really intense,” he said. “It was like from me being very unhealthy to all of a sudden being super clean. My body responded very fast. It was life changing for me after I lost those 120 pounds in nine months. Old friends would walk right by me because they didn’t recognize me.”
When he went to renew his driver’s license, he said, three managers didn’t believe he was the person in his old license photo.
“They had a face recognition lady who specializes in these cases,” he said. “She could tell it was me based on how my nose and my eyes were adjacent to each other.”
After finishing his associate degree at Montgomery College, Taginya got a real estate license but then decided that wasn’t the career for him. He also realized that if he was going to progress in any profession, he would need a bachelor’s degree. That led him to UMGC.
“I knew all of my Montgomery College classes would transfer. And I liked that [UMGC] was online because, by then, I was managing my parents’ businesses and working in real estate and … I opened my own drycleaners in Wheaton. I could go to college while managing my own time.”
His major was general studies, but Taginya focused on business-related classes, including finance, small-business management, accounting, and government contracting. It all related to his goal of being an entrepreneur. He was driven to get As, even while taking as many as six or seven courses in a 16-week semester.
Taginya is also proud that he made the Dean’s List in each of his semesters at UMGC.
“I was always in contact with my professors,” he said, “and they were always very responsive.
When you start a course, you always want to get a sense of how your professor wants this course to be completed. All of the professors wanted me to succeed.”
And the weight? It’s crept back up to 215, from 175, but Taginya said the gain is OK.
“I eat a lot more now, but I eat healthy,” he said. “I still lift weights so I’m a good 215. I think I look better now than I did at 175.”