Iranian student on a mission to undo stereotypes

Last September Babre Mazandaran left his country of Iran for the first time. Six months have passed since his arrival to Portland, and he has a message to spread: Iran is a different country than the one many westerners have in mind.

The 27-year-old Mazandaran came to Portland State to teach Farsi for the Heritage language program. He is one of three Iranians who came to the U.S. through a Fulbright teaching program. Mazandaran received his master’s degree in English at the University of Tehran.

Manzandaran said that the casual rapport between teachers and students at PSU surprised him at first. Since the government pays for education in Iran, academia there is very disciplined and formal. Calling a professor by their first name is downright unheard of where he comes from.

However, he said that the liberal and open-minded attitude combined with the environment makes Oregon the ideal place him. His home in Iran is near the Caspian Sea where, like Portland, it is rainy, green and lush.

Mazandaran learned about the U.S. before coming here through movies and magazines, and as it turns out, the U.S. is different than the media portrays. When asked about his general impression of the culture, Mazandaran said he sees a do-or-die type attitude. “Americans are working hard,” he said. He said he sees more procrastination and cronyism in Iran.

Mazandaran was brought here by the Fulbright organization, which visited Iran and invited professors to apply. Out of 60 applicants, eight were selected for interviews. Four were chosen, and the Iranian Fulbrighters began their trek to the states in September. Since there is no U.S. Embassy in Iran, they needed to get their U.S. travel visa at the embassy in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. Though it is ostensibly difficult to travel to the U.S. from his home country, Iran neither supported nor encouraged their travels.

The U.S. Embassy granted three of the Iranian applicants visas. One went to Santa Barbara, Calif. and the other went to Tucson, Ariz. As women are traditionally more attached to their families in the Iranian culture, they have less trouble attaining a visa.

It is a different story for men. To receive a visa they had to establish with the officials that they had financial and family ties in Iran to return to. Mazandaran’s wife lives in Iran, which proved a large enough incentive for him to return.

“They need assurance that we boys go back,” Mazandaran said.

Mazandaran described the process both humiliating and gruesome. He went through detailed security checks and fingerprinting. Having to wait two hours in the sweltering heat of Dubai, Mazandaran said he was asked personal questions. After being asked if he’d ever lived in a democracy, the questioners proceeded to ask whom he voted for in the recent election in Iran and about his income.

The applicants then endured two 30-minute interviews. In the first round, three of the four accepted Fulbrighters failed. The Institute of International Education emailed the embassy on their behalf and a second chance was granted. In the end, the U.S. embassy gave three visas.

Mazandaran said that despite a belief by some that Iranians dislike the United States, he considers his country to be very pro-America. Seventy percent of the population is under 30, he said, and with that youthful vigor comes a general love of western pop-culture.

The intrigue of a verboten culture proves irresistible for the younger generation. “The forbidden fruit is always sweeter,” he said, adding that many Iranian youth can easily differentiate between the U.S. people and the Bush administration.

“They really love Americans,” he said. He described his people as educated and politically conscious, though desperate.

“Iran is a dictatorship,” Mazandaran said. Despite the fa퀨͌_ade of a democratic voting system, Mazandaran said that a guardian council provides the selection. The least evil wins the election.

There is so much youthful energy in the nation that the only element missing from change is a directed leadership. “You can stop a spring in one place,” Mazandaran said, “but it will spring up elsewhere.”

Mazandaran will return to Iran in June, and said he looks forward to seeing his wife. This winter he will take the entrance exam for the Ph.D. program for applied linguistics. Backbreaking studying is likely to ensue, as the program accepts five applicants out of 300. He will also help to coordinate an English language teaching institution and return to his teaching position at Azad University (a private institution).

Though higher education in Iran is monetarily free, he said, it is not easily accessible. Out of the two million college hopefuls who take the entrance exam, 150,000 are accepted. Mazandaran said the studying required for these exams is backbreaking, and having the more prestigious state degree determines whether or not an Iranian will have a good life. Mazandaran said some young people commit suicide if they fail the exam. There are paid universities that accept students who score down to half the state acceptance level, but the state-run university is much more respected.

Mazandaran pointed out that 60 percent of college graduates in Iran are women. Though the student culture is rigid in Iran, he said it does not suffocate creative thought. “You can never suppress the desires of young people,” he said.

Teaching techniques learned at PSU will soon make their way to the Middle East. Mazandaran plans on integrating the casual and free form flow of information with his teaching style. “I learn as well,” Mazandaran said on this format. He appreciates the fact that instructors here can be perpetual students.