October 15, 2009

Closing the Gap Between Iran and the United States, One Student at a Time

Laya Khadjavi ’88 and Nazgol Saati Shabhazi ’85 received the Institute of International Education’s Women’s Global Leadership Award.

Laya Khadjavi ’88 and Nazgol Saati Shahbazi ’85 share a passion for education, and for Iran — a country from which they were uprooted nearly 30 years ago.

Like so many Iranian Americans, the two alumnae and their families fled Iran closely before the 1979 revolution. Both graduated from American universities and moved to New York to work in finance, Khadjavi as a managing director at Morgan Stanley Smith Barney and Shahbazi as an executive with real estate company KS Partners. And both were increasingly saddened by — and determined to help bridge — the schism between Iran and the United States.

Iranian Opportunities FundOn September 23, Khadjavi and Shahbazi (far left and right in photo) received the inaugural Women’s Global Leadership Award from the Institute for International Education (IEE) for their efforts to improve cultural and educational relations between the two countries. Working with Roya Khadjavi Heidari (Laya’s sister) and Maryam Panahy Ansary, a longstanding IEE trustee, Khadjavi and Shahbazi joined together to establish the Iranian Opportunities Fund at the IEE. One of the fund’s primary activities is to help support a fellowship program that brings graduate students from Iran to colleges and universities across the United States.

“It breaks my heart to see how Iran and the United States have grown apart because of what’s going on politically in Iran,” says Khadjavi, who has never returned to the country where she was born. “Our program fosters personal connections that we hope will help close that gap, one student at a time.”

As fellows, the Iranian students teach courses on the Persian language and culture and take classes in their area of interest for a year, after which they return to Iran. They are quick to discover how much they have in common with American students, says Khadjavi: they listen to the same music, read the same books and share the same aspirations. They begin to understand that what divides them is the Iranian government — not its people.

“We want these kids to go back to Iran and take the beauty of this culture with them so that more and more young people in Iran understand what the United States is really like,” says Shahbazi.

The Iranian students also acquire an increased sense of pride around their own heritage, says Khadjavi, as they discover that Americans are very interested in learning about their language and culture.

Khadjavi and Shahbazi have met all of the Iranian students who have participated in the program so far. Last year, Khadjavi gave the students a tour of the trading floor at Morgan Stanley. “They had never seen anything like it,” said Khadjavi. “There were so excited.”

“During a time when negative press dominates conversations about the relations between Iran and the U.S., we have been provided a forum in which to create a positive dialogue above and beyond what is portrayed in the media,” an Iranian student said in her remarks at a dinner last year honoring the program’s founders. “This dialogue is now echoing throughout various colleges and universities in the U.S. and will, I hope, resound in Iran after we return.”

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