Banning Iranians from Academia Is Stupid, and One Student Has the Math to Back That Up

There's a long tradition of top students from all over the world coming to the United States to pursue academic excellence, and Iran is no exception.

Sharif University, Tehran. (Photo: Wikipedia)

Feb 20, 2015· 3 MIN READ
Shaya Tayefe Mohajer is TakePart's News Editor.

Editor’s Note: Earlier this week, the University of Massachussetts–Amherst made headlines when it briefly banned Iranian nationals from admission to graduate programs in science and engineering, citing a fear of educating Iran’s future nuclear scientists. The school said the move came in response to legislation but reversed course after consulting with the State Department and outside counsel.

The move highlights one of Iran’s top academic institutions, Sharif University of Technology, where academic rigor and scientific commitment has led to many Iranians having their pick of universities to go to abroad for advanced education.

TakePart spoke to Hossein Daraei, a 23-year-old Sharif graduate and Iranian national who is working toward his Ph.D in electrical engineering in the United States and has studied the phenomenon of Iran’s brain drain. Here’s what Daraei told us, edited for length and clarity.

Iran’s best students end up all over the world, but American officials have found that nearly 90 percent of the time, when doctoral students come to the U.S. from Iran, they intend to stay here after school—making the idea that there’s any viable threat of nuclear espionage via academia particularly unrealistic. Only China has as many high-achieving students who don’t plan to return to their home country after attaining the highest levels of education.

Personally, I think it’s a stupid idea—and I don’t use the word stupid lightly—not to grant admissions to students based strictly on their nationality. Whether this decision was backed up by political reasons or not, it is a clear case of discrimination by nationality. It is time for all of us to realize that depending on how a government or a specific group behaves to reach conclusions about all of the nationals of that country is definitively wrong. I find that sort of shameful generalization to be particularly both sad and offensive, but above all a big shame for UMass for explicitly announcing such a thing—and happy that they now have changed their mind.

What some Americans may not realize is that I traveled a very well-worn path to come to the United States, and I started on this path very young, like many of the Iranian nationals I know here now. After elementary school, Iran’s exceptional students—dubbed teez hooshan, which literally means “sharp minds”— are sent to schools, like magnet schools in the U.S., that educate gifted kids. Being selected for those classes meant that I would receive an excellent education and eventually be admitted to one of my country’s top universities—but I’d also ended up knowing everything I needed to know about leaving Iran. By the time I got to Sharif as an electrical engineering undergrad, I would often see graduating seniors giving advice to freshman and sophomore students about coursework and applying to universities for America, Canada, or Europe. When it came time for me to leave Sharif, I had their advice to rely on, too—and that helped me come to the U.S. in 2012 to study engineering at the University of California, Santa Cruz. That’s what the majority of graduates do, because the difference between opportunities and salaries in Iran and Silicon Valley is not even close. Unless they have personal reasons that keep them in Iran, most look beyond the country’s borders for opportunity.

I personally have never experienced any sort of problem with people being suspicious of my academic integrity while studying at UCSC, but I have friends who are Iranian students in the U.S. that have encountered some problems. What is common is that some Iranian students get checked in on by FBI agents—it’s a friendly talk where they ask you to go to coffee. Mostly, they ask if you’re happy in America. There are people who come to the U.S. and get depressed—it can be tough to come to a country that is so different from the place you grew up, particularly for people whose visa won’t allow them to go back to visit Iran while they’re here.

So, why do Iranians and many of the world’s brightest students want to stay in the U.S.? Iranians have their own individual reasons for staying in the U.S., and surely some may chafe at the government’s style, but by and large most leave because they recognize the opportunities are fewer in Iran than they are abroad.

For me, I was really in love with pure scientific inquiry and wanted to work with the most cutting-edge technology. There’s a very exciting world that is just emerging in math and science, and students at Sharif really want to engage with the latest information—which can be tough when sanctions and rough diplomatic relations have limited the equipment and academic partnerships Iranian students have access to. So, while there is excellent research and work to do in Iran, it doesn’t compare to the worlds that can be explored by an IT major in Silicon Valley, or a chemical engineer in Texas, where that industry is strong.

The dream I’m working toward is in the development of self-driving cars, and the technology that helps these cars identify other vehicles or hazards through transmitters that would be all over the cars. Autonomous cars are already on the roads here in Northern California—the pioneers in the field are Google, and they’re really evolving fast—and these vehicles need roads with clear signage and organization. Projects for self-driving cars are being designed for German roads and here in Northern California because those roads have the best markings and strong organization. To be honest, I don’t believe that these cars can drive in Iran for the next 30 years—in Tehran we don’t have good signage or organization. The Silicon Valley is definitely the No. 1 dream place to work for engineers today.

All of this isn’t to say everyone in Iran actually wants you to leave—there are professors who promote staying in Iran, and other students who encourage the country’s brightest to stay. But our ambitions, more often than not, take us to the other side of the world. We, as human beings, have learned over the past decades that diversity in thought is the key element that builds prosperity in any scientific or industrial environment. That’s what we bring, and what we hope to find, when we leave Iran.