As Bita Daryabari grew up, she was surrounded constantly by Iranian literature and poetry. She treasured the days spent reading books written in Farsi or memorizing the writings of 13th-century poet and scholar Rumi.
"It is a part of your life, your culture," the former computer scientist and telecommunications manager-turned-humanitarian and philanthropist said about her $5 million gift to the University of California, Berkeley, to further the study of Iranian languages, literature, arts and culture, and especially the country's history.
A native of Tehran, Daryabari was dispatched as a teen by her parents to live in the United States to pursue her education and interests freely. Though she left Iran, she maintains close ties, love and a devotion to the country and its rich history and culture.
The Bita Daryabari Presidential Chair in Iranian Studies, financed by her contribution and a grant of $500,000 from the University of California Presidential Match for Endowed Chairs, will support teaching and research by a faculty member in the Department of Near Eastern Studies (NES), with a preference for work focused on ancient Iran.
Opening hearts and minds
Daryabari hopes the gift will help students at UC Berkeley who are part of the Iranian diaspora to learn more about their Iranian heritage.
Non-Iranian students can benefit as well, said Daryabari, adding that learning the culture and history of another country can do more than add to knowledge, but can open hearts and minds to new understanding, respect and peaceful solutions to problems.
"Hopefully all of these students (studying Iranian history and culture) will make a difference in the future," she said, noting that being the mother of three children deepens her motivation to provide for coming generations.
A seminal position
NES students and faculty are excited at the prospect of welcoming an outstanding scholar of Iran as an endowed chair to enhance the department's already rigorous program of Persian language, literature and material culture, said department chair Carol Redmount. She said NES is equally enthusiastic about the development of a vibrant, interdisciplinary program of Iranian studies at UC Berkeley.
"We are gratified that this major Middle Eastern culture and civilization, with its rich and influential heritage and history, will now be more appropriately represented on campus," said Redmount. "We are most grateful to Bita Daryabari for endowing this seminal position."
UC Berkeley has long focused on scholarship for Persian and Iranian studies, with work on ancient and middle Iranian cultures, religion, philology and languages such as Avestan, Old Persian, Middle Persian and Sogdian – as well as Persian Sufi/mystical literature, medieval Persian philosophy, intellectual history and modern Persian literature. Its faculty also explore Persian literature and culture in Iran proper and in the rest of the Persianate world.
"One of the interesting things about Iranian studies is that it gives us an opportunity to see history across many perspectives," said Anthony Cascardi, dean of the arts and humanities at UC Berkeley, noting the region's rich records and contributions ranging from the Paleolithic age to invasions by Greeks, Arabs, Turks and Mongols and contemporary relations with neighbors such as Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Turkey.
History of giving
Daryabari's gift to bolster Iranian studies at UC Berkeley is her latest contribution to supplement Iranian studies in higher education.
Other institutions to receive her assistance include UC Davis, Stanford University and Pembroke College in Cambridge, England, to support continuing research on theShanama, or The Book of Kings, Iran's national epic poem, which recounts the history and myths of ancient Persia. Additional efforts by Daryabari to further higher education include contributions to the UC San Francisco Mission Bay for neuroscience research and the Bita Daryabari Scholarship Program For Women of Middle East in Business and Law at Golden Gate University.
Another example of Daryabari's philanthropy is seen in her founding of the Pars Equality Center, based in San Jose and Los Angeles, to promote the social, cultural and economic integration of Iranians and Persian-speaking residents.
Daryabari also leads or collaborates on philanthropic projects through her Unique Zan Foundation supporting female students in Afghanistan and across Western Asia.
She was named the World Affairs Council Honoree of the Year in 2015, and received the Ellis Island Medal of Honor in 2012 and the United Nations Appreciation Award for Outstanding Leadership, Commitment and Support of the United Nations and Achieving the U.N. Millennium Development Goals in 2011. In 2010 she was named the Philanthropist of the Year by the Public Affairs Alliance of Iranian Americans.
Daryabari earned a bachelor's degree in computer science at California State University, Hayward, and a master's in telecommunication management at Golden Gate University in San Francisco, where she was named Alumnus of the Year in 2008.