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The Odyssey of Shirin Sadeh

Nick Jaramillo

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Shirin Sadeh may rank as one of the most fascinating professors at the College of the Sequoias—and not just for her energy in the classroom.

Sadeh, a professor of physics and mathematics for the past 28 years, is known for the way she practices her craft: sauntering side-to-side at the fore of the classroom, weaving her scientific pedagogy together with the verve of a stand-up comedian.

However, Sadeh’s effervescent teaching style belies a lengthy odyssey through the world of higher education that began in the Iranian metropolis of Rasht, a city bordering the Caspian Sea.

“I was born in the northern part of Iran,” recalls Sadeh, wistfully reminiscing about her hometown while sipping tea in her office. “My hometown being near the Caspian Sea, even though it has a million people in it, is breezy. It’s beautiful. It rains a lot, so the air is clean.”

Sadeh enjoyed a happy upbringing in Rasht. Growing up in an environment that encouraged curiosity and academic success, Sadeh quickly found her calling in science and mathematics.

“I majored in math and physics in high school in Iran because they ask you to choose a major in the 10th, 11th, 12th grade—the last three years. I picked math and physics because that was what I liked,” Sadeh said. “I was on my way to doing something with these fields. And then, of course, I started college in Iran. During the first year in college, Iran had a revolution.”

Disrupting a period of relative prosperity, the revolution swept across Iran in 1979, transforming the secular, westernized nation into an Islamic Republic.

Within a few tumultuous years, the presiding Iranian monarch, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, was ousted by a popular movement and replaced by the Grand Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, ushering in a new era of uncertainty and conflict.

“They shut down the universities and all other public places that the young people attended because they were afraid of demonstrations and uprisings,” Sadeh said. “For about a year and a half, everybody was sent home from college, waiting to see what would happen with the revolution. What the new government would be like and would they open the universities any time soon.”

The fundamentalist nature of the revolution alienated many secular Iranians, including Sadeh and her family.

“My mother never was a religious person,” Sadeh said. “My dad was of Islamic persuasions, but never a fanatic. He never raised any of us to believe in anything that he necessarily believed in. He left it open and free for us to choose what we wanted to. I certainly was never a religious person of any kind. Not Islam or anything else. I was trained scientifically, so I look for evidence and that’s what’s enough for me.”

“None of my siblings were religious,” Sadeh said. “For them, this new government was extremely fanatic. They didn’t like the way things were changing. But, you’re a minority. What are you going to do in a situation where most of the people want the change? They grinned and beared it.”

With the Iranian Revolution in full swing, Sadeh’s father sought to send her abroad to finish her studies in an environment less hostile to the scientific community’s secular leanings.

“I was sent to Syracuse, New York by my dad to continue my studies there,” Sadeh said. “I majored in physics at Syracuse University, double majored math and physics both. I got my bachelor’s degree and went to graduate school of physics in Connecticut. From there, back to Syracuse for another graduate degree.”

Although Sadeh capitalized on the opportunity to emigrate her troubled homeland, her parents declined to follow.

“They’re traditional people who believe in their own country and staying where they developed roots,” Sadeh said. “I was just a young kid without anything of my own other than my mom and dad and siblings, so it was easier for me to take off.”

Arriving in upstate New York as a young Iranian immigrant, Sadeh possessed more knowledge of American culture than most due to her upbringing in Rasht’s relatively cosmopolitan milieu.

“We had a lot of foreigners in Iran, Sadeh said. “And because our hometown was so close to the beaches, we had a lot of our friends come and spend at least part of the summer in my parents home with an easy commute to the beaches. Among those people that spent a lot of time in my parents’ home were American friends.”

Language did not pose a significant obstacle for Sadeh upon her immigration. Although Farsi is Sadeh’s native tongue, she gained an understanding of English in her formative years through her comprehensive education. Prior to the revolution, English was taught as a second language in Iranian schools, giving Sadeh a notable advantage over most immigrants to America.

Even with these advantages, Sadeh still had to navigate many of the typical hardships common to newly-arrived foreigners.

“You’re homesick, you’re a foreign student in America, and you’re walking down the street missing your family,” Sadeh said. “I was used to having people around me. That moral support, that connection that is of the human kind was always surrounding me. I came here to the United States, I was all alone, missing my family and this is in 1979. There were no cell phones. Calling and connecting with somebody on the other side of the world wasn’t as easy as it is today. Once a month, maybe, I could afford to call my parents and hear their voices.”

This sense of isolation and estrangement from her native culture was compounded by the beginning of the bloody, eight year-long Iran–Iraq War of the 1980s. While Sadeh was safely abroad working toward her academic goals in Syracuse, war was raging back home.

“They [Iran] fought Iraq, a neighbor country,” Sadeh said. “It was very difficult for everyone that lived there, especially if you lived anywhere near the border with Iraq. There were times when the sirens would go off and they would have to go hide under the staircase because the bombings were happening. The enemy was there, bombing the city. Lucky for them, they’re far enough away from the capital, far enough away from the border with Iraq that there wasn’t too many damages to the city. But, of course, what goes along with a war is that food isn’t available, life just is interrupted.”

“They had to go through all those hard times,” Sadeh said. “My parents really aged a lot more during that time than any other time. It was hard on everybody. But I was here.”

Despite the catastrophic problems plaguing her home country at the time, Sadeh was beginning to acclimate to her newly-adopted American culture. Her first experiences with novel American behaviors and attitudes fortunately skewed pleasant.

“Some of the cultural shocks that I might have experienced in the beginning were of the most positive kind,” Sadeh said. “I’d be walking down the street in Syracuse and somebody coming from the opposite direction would smile at me—a total stranger, American—smile, and say ‘good morning.’ This was so precious to me! Because where I come from, you have to know somebody to say ‘hello.’ If you actually say ‘hello’ to someone you don’t know on the street and say ‘good morning,’ they might think you’re a little bit crazy.”

It was during this period of newfound comfort and contentment with her life in America that Sadeh first began contemplating a career in education.

“When I was going through school, I don’t remember giving teaching much of a thought,” Sadeh said. “I was an experimental physicist. That means I was in the lab all the time. Doing experiments, running equipment, analyzing data had become my life for six years, at least.”

Sadeh’s profile had risen to the point where technology giants such as IBM and General Electric were prepared to offer her lucrative career opportunities and, thus, an avenue for acquiring a green card. However, by this point Sadeh had been bitten by the teaching bug.

“I noticed that the students were very happy with me,” Sadeh said. “I had this attitude of going in, ‘yeah, let’s solve a problem, yay! This is really fun!’ And they really liked it! I began to realize that teaching was also something I could consider.”

Before IBM or General Electric could even attempt to persuade her, Sadeh was already fielding offers for teaching positions at various universities, ultimately setting her sights on the Midwest.

“My first job at a college was at Iowa State University, where I taught physics in their physics department,” says Sadeh, bristling with pride. “For the first time, they had a female professor of physics. And that was me.

“I was very happy to do something no woman had done at Iowa State University. They had a lot of teaching assistants who were female, but never a professor.”

While this accomplishment made a fine feather in her cap, the Midwest was not an ideal location for Sadeh. After a year of teaching at Iowa State, Sadeh left and began looking for other employment opportunities. As it happened, one such opportunity was at the College of the Sequoias in the late 1980s.

“I came to Visalia because I saw this job opening and everybody said, ‘Visalia is like a stepping stone to everything else in California that’s interesting! You know, Sequoia Park is nearby, LA and San Francisco are not far. It would be a great place to work,’” Sadeh said. “I came here, started teaching, and the rest is history.”

The transition from teaching at East Coast and Midwestern universities to a California community college took Sadeh by surprise. Rather than dealing with the advanced-level students common to large east coast schools, Sadeh was suddenly confronted with a student body less knowledgeable about science and math.

“I taught at Syracuse University when I was a graduate student and when I was finishing up I taught conceptual physics,” Sadeh said. “Big lecture, regular class, not just assisting a professor. So, I knew the level of the students in the state of New York. Then I taught at Iowa State, that was in the Midwest. And I saw that there was a decrease in the background level but not that dramatic compared to New York. But, when I came to California, all bets were off! This was something else.”

“When I came here, even though I was just giving exams at the same level that I was accustomed to in other universities prior to here, I was known as somebody who is beyond-belief hard,” Sadeh said. “To this day, I’m not an easy teacher. I put a lot of energy into my classes. I want the best for my students, so I like to train them in a way that they can go anywhere they choose.”

“I don’t limit them as to where they can transfer to,” Sadeh said. “They could go to MIT and succeed if they wanted to. They could go to Harvard, they could go anywhere. I don’t just limit them to local stuff. Because you owe it to your students to raise their level so that they can choose for themselves. Who am I to limit them?”

That ethos forms the crux of Sadeh’s teaching philosophy. Rather than lower her standards to accommodate lower-achieving students, Sadeh instead challenges her students to rise to her higher expectations. Despite the difficulty of her classes, Sadeh believes that they will ultimately benefit any student who possesses the appropriate motivation and work ethic.

“I think now my students just know that if they’re going to take a class with me, they need to be willing to work,” Sadeh said. “They need to know why they’re there. And in the end, they will have a good experience. They will learn a lot, hopefully, and go anywhere they can from there.”

After 28 years of teaching at the College of the Sequoias, Sadeh’s enthusiasm for her profession has not waned. However, she has recently been contemplating retiring from the college, describing it as an inevitability.

Sadeh has even started planning her next moves after she departs COS.

“I’m thinking I’ll go back east again,” Sadeh said. “That’s where all of my good friends from college are. That’s a way of thinking I’m more accustomed to, even after 28 years of living in California. I don’t see myself as a Californian, but I see myself a lot more like a New Yorker, or somebody from Connecticut. I don’t mind the colder winters, because the air is cleaner.”

“My lungs have been under attack here for 28 years,” Sadeh said. “Every winter I get seriously ill, and it all stems from the lungs getting infected. I know that they need fresher air than this. I want to go where I can breathe, I want to go to where my old friends from college are. We kept in touch all these years, in spite of the fact that we’re 3,000 miles away. I think that would be a better place for me to live.”

Sadeh is quick to point out, however, that retiring from COS does not necessarily mean retiring from teaching altogether. Sadeh remains open to the idea of teaching at other institutions, with one particularly prestigious university in mind.

“One of the things I have on the so-called ‘bucket list’ is to teach at Harvard,” reveals Sadeh, her face alight with ambition. “I’m hoping they will give me a couple of part-time type positions to teach math and physics at Harvard. I’ve always wanted to go to Harvard as a student. It didn’t happen. So, I’d like to be able to teach there.”

Retiring from the college also represents an attractive option for Sadeh due to the time it would allow her to spend with the other great passion in her life: family.

“I’m looking forward to spending more time with my family that I haven’t had much time with because of living here,” Sadeh said. Family is very important to me. My mother is still living, she is 83 years old. I’d like to be able to put more time into my mother’s life and take care of her for all the years that she took care of us.”

For the time being, though, Sadeh remains content in her role as a professor of physics and mathematics at COS. Despite her longing to continue her grand journey through life outside of the Central Valley, Sadeh still greatly values her profession and the contribution she provides to the world.

“I think my job is a good one because I can help people achieve their goals,” Sadeh said. “If in just a small way I can make the future goals of a student possible because this was a stepping stone, this class that they take with me, and they were able to step over to the next step. Then my job is done. I did something productive and made more productive human beings for the society. I think that’s pretty good. Independent people that are going places.”

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The Odyssey of Shirin Sadeh