American universities dedicate themselves to the pursuit of knowledge and understanding, but some take an extra step in furthering this admirable goal. In terms of relations with its local Iranian-American community and establishing scholarly exchanges with academics in Iran, the University of California at Davis is a leading example of a university reaching out to Iranians locally and globally. UC Davis is located just 10 miles from Sacramento, one of the many cities in the United States with a thriving Iranian-American community. In the 1970's, UC Davis had more international students from Iran than it had from any other country. It was this legacy that led to a number of recent initiatives by the UC that have made a tremendous difference in providing opportunities to international students while promoting understanding between cultures.
One of the key elements of the University's engagement is its active Iranian Alumni Association. This association is not only a network for UC Davis alumni, it is also a cultural organization that promotes Persian heritage to Iranians and non-Iranians alike, and is inclusive of Iranian-Americans in the Davis and Sacramento area. In 1996, the association set its goal of creating an Iranian Scholarship Endowment at UC Davis. UC Davis Chancellor Vanderhoef attended one of the early fundraisers for the endowment, the beginning of a fruitful relationship with the Iranian-American community.
It was at this event that a local Iranian-American business leader proposed to the Chancellor that UC Davis establish an exchange with Iran. Student performers from the Iranian Students Cultural and Aesthetic Organization (ISCAO), a student organization at UC Davis, also approached the Chancellor and asked if Persian could be taught at UC Davis. These interactions with Iranian-American community members and students passionate about learning and maintaining strong ties to their heritage ignited the Chancellor's drive to initiate progress.
Within a year, the Chancellor had arranged with Sacramento City College to offer Persian language courses at the community college's Davis branch. He also began a collaboration with the University of Tehran. When a delegation from the University of Tehran was denied entry to the United States, the Chancellor didn't give up. Instead, he led a delegation from UC Davis to Iran in 2004. In Iran, they visited universities, took time to walk the streets and speak with ordinary Iranians, and arranged an inspiring gathering of UC Davis alumni living and working in Iran.
Bob Kerr, the University's Assistant Vice Provost of International Alumni and Development noted, "When we visit any country, we always emphasize that these visits are not religious and not political. They are educational. How do we advance knowledge through teaching and research and putting into practice what we have learned? When people were saying we shouldn't go, Chancellor Vanderhoef said: ‘That is the reason we need to go.'"
Upon their return, the delegates worked with American immigration officials to ease the process for qualified Iranian students to gain permission to come to the US to study. They have done the same to provide opportunities for Iranian faculty and scholars. While progress is slow, each step taken is important. Three areas of great interest for collaboration are engineering, business and notably agriculture, because of the similarity in climate and crop issues facing California and Iran. In one recent step, last fall the UC Davis Graduate School of Management hosted 6 students from Sharif University to study side by side for over a month with American students.
UC Davis' neighbor in the region, Sacramento State University, has taken major steps of its own. It has established the Iranian and Middle East Studies Center, headed by Bahman Fozouni, chair of the Government Department. The Center aims to increase Iranian studies for the large student population of Sacramento State University and build ties to the Persian and Middle Eastern community in the region.
These examples are an inspiration to all, combining an active alumni association, support from the Iranian-American community, and leadership from leading universities to break down cultural barriers and promote the pursuit of knowledge and understanding.