The Iranian Studies Initiative of the University of California, Santa Barbara, founded in 2010, has been expanding its departmental presence within the university, its professional influence on students beyond the classroom and its instrumental work in aiding Iranian immigrants across the globe.
The initiative began as an academic venture, striving to offer more courses on Iranian history, and modern analysis of Iran and Iranian heritage. Janet Afary, professor of religious studies and feminist studies at UCSB, founded the Iranian Studies Initiative upon starting her professional career at the university in 2009. In an interview on Friday, she spoke of the reasons for its beginnings, its work thus far and the future for this organization.
“I’ve served as president for the Iranian Society of International Studies before coming to this university,” Afary said. “I came here in 2009, and it would make sense to build the Iranian student component in the university.”
According to the Iranian Studies Initiative website, “The Iranian Studies Initiative is a resource center devoted to the research, teaching and dissemination of Iranian history and culture.”
Academically, the initiative has brought in donations to hire a Farsi language professor in 2014, and ensure his or her presence for the next five years. According to Professor Afary, thanks to the donation from the Gramian-Emrani Foundation, the Department of Religious Studies is now set to teach Farsi I and Farsi II for the next five years. She went on to say that they hope to expand these successes in the future, ensuring that Farsi III will be offered and that a minor in Persian studies will be offered, a curriculum she is working to construct.
Aside from organizing for Iranian course expansion, the initiative has started an internship program for students who have either taken Farsi I or an Iranian studies course, along with maintaining a 3.0 GPA. The internship was created by the need of Afary, and other faculty, to support students in building their resume for post-graduation employment opportunities, and to aid the non-profit organization involved that is without the funds to hire employees.
“I am very concerned about the future of our students in terms of their abilities to get jobs,” Afary said. “I want us to be more supportive of the student organizations, and we have just started in the last year and a half working with the students. I think we should be here as support and a resource for students’ academics.”
The internship has openings for six to eight students per quarter and serves on a quarterly basis, matching students who qualify with the requirements. The students are then interviewed for their compatibility with the program’s mission with one of the four nonprofit organizations that help Iranian refugees and/or Iranian-Americans. The four nonprofits include The Personal Growth Institute (a center for psychological services), PARS equality center, A More Balanced World and Baha’i Institute for Higher Education (BIHE), which aids people in an underground school in Iran through their nonprofit organization in Los Angeles.
The internship is listed on the Iranian Studies Initiative website, but information on the internship has been largely found out through word of mouth, according to Afary. There is a limited capacity in how many interns the initiative can support, so advertisements are limited.
“I like students to have gone through some of our courses, and to have hopefully taken Persian language for a year or two, or individuals who are really interested in learning about other cultures, so we announce the internship opportunity at the beginning of the term in these classes,” Afary said.
Another benefit of this internship program is increasing the sense of pride in Persian heritage for many students, both from Iran and raised in the States. Half of the interns who have completed the program thus far have been of Iranian heritage.
Jessica Edwards, a spring 2015 intern, reiterated this message: “It’s the work of organizations (such as PARS) passionately looking after the Iranian community without any expectations that makes me very hopeful for my people and incredibly honored to be an Iranian,” she said.
Kashayar Mozaffari, another spring 2015 intern, had similar sentiments. “As a first-generation Iranian immigrant, I initially struggled with adapting to the American environment and took a while to become accustomed to my surroundings … [PARS Equality Center] appeared as the perfect opportunity for me to get involved and help out Iranians who are in need of help to settle down in this country.”
The Iranian Studies Initiative has served many different communities, more than were anticipated upon its creation. It has aided students within the University, professors in Iranian studies and the nonprofits directly giving back to Iranian refugees and community members. It has served as a foundation to request more funding from the university, accept donations and increase visibility of already existing Iranian studies and Middle East studies courses within the university.
“This internship differs in the sense that, for the heritage students, it tries to build a sense of pride in them, as in look at the wonderful things the community is doing, and I am very proud of that,” Afary said. “And for other students who are not of Middle Eastern background, it really helps them to see the Middle East in a positive way.”