Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Iranian Scholarship Foundation 2008 gala

Comedian Maz Jobarani finagled his complicated schedule so he could accept Iranian Scholarship Foundation’s invitation to speak at their fundraising gala. An alternate choice for the event had been graphic novelist Marjane Satrapi. But Jobrani was more stubbornly persuasive in beating back his schedulers. A stellar cluster of young Iranian scholars needed his support, and no other engagement seemed more important.

Jobrani immediately challenged his audience with a hilariously multi-layered routine about how his mother wanted him to be a lawyer--when he really wanted to be an actor.

Mother: You want to grow up to be a clown?
Maz: Mom, I just want to act.
Mother: Well being a lawyer is a kind of acting. Isn’t it? You act in front of the jury, that’s twelve people right there. Throw in the judge; that makes thirteen. And then there’s the weekends. Why don’t you act on weekends, ghorboonet beram.

Of course none of the scholarship students are attending clown school. Berkeley, Stanford, UCLA, Yale, Harvard, Cornell, Columbia, are all institutions with superb curricula in law and the sciences. But Jobrani’s clever routine seemed to be asking if the Scholarship Committee treated the arts seriously. As though in answer, one of the student speakers gave us the delightful news that his new play was about to be professionally produced. Later I found out another scholarship student majored in fashion design. In the case of Lawyer vs. Clown, the Scholarship Committee had been an impartial jury.

This impartiality is expressed tersely by Selection Committee member Dr. Abbas Milani. He says, "Once I determine a candidate has the four qualifications--grades, need, Iranian ancestors and contribution to promotion of Persian culture--then a composite of all four, along with the quality of statement and recommendations determines a students final rank."

On the emotional level, however, the four qualifications can be better understood in a Wizard of OZ format: brains, courage, heart, and vision.

The brains part of the story is easiest to see. A GPA of 3.5 in this need-based scholarship qualifies to apply for it, but some of the students carry strings of uninterrupted “A”s coupled with near perfect SAT scores.

Courage is the domain of Professor Jaleh Pirnazar, another of the six committee members. Venturing beyond academic achievement, undeterred by imperfect grades, she scours the applicant’s written essay, seeking strengths where a gamble may bring big payoffs. The qualities that impress her are leadership, perseverance against hardships, and a good sense of community responsibility. Tellingly, a recipient is obligated to perform 100 hours of community service each year so that his/her conscientious faculties continue to get a workout. Outside of class, look for ISF students in places like the Big Brother/Sister Program or cancer help centers.

Heart is symbolized by Mehdi Safipour. Ask any of the students who hold him up as their role model for commitment. When I saw Safipour last Sunday, I lied to him about looking less tired than he did during previous galas. He has not stopped to rest since he joined the committee years ago. The force of his dedication supplies even the tiniest administrative capillary of this foundation. In the middle of a busy financial accounting day, he has been known to take the trouble of making reminder calls to students who may be late in their paperwork, or who may need counseling towards a particular course credit.

Azadeh Hariri is the Dorothy archetype, symbolic of the students' vision . Her dream of happier futures drives the ISF narrative. An heiress to pre-revolution textile wealth, Hariri is the financial mill of the foundation. At first encounter she comes across as an unpretentiously rich altruist. Good students shouldn’t have to worry about money while in school.

At a broader level Hariri sees a time when the best Iranian minds are contributing to American culture. As politicians, judges, artists, entrepreneurs, professors, medical scientists, journalists, and economists they will fuse the wisdom of their Iranian heritage with the traditions of American democracy, creating better policies and decisions.

Of course if some of these students were to win Nobel Prizes, Oscars, or Pulitzers—and it's a safe bet—Hariri’s collection of intellectual gems will outshine any ornament she could put behind a glass. But this takes Hariri's philanthropic strategy too lightly. To explain, she pays all the costs of the foundation including the huge annual gala, so that 100% of the donations go to the students. One may ask if she’s got so much money why doesn’t she just pay the tuitions directly? Because the social institution of Iranian-Americans rolling up their sleeves to support each other could use help being built. Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach him to fish and…

Among the farsighted organizations teaching our community to fish, few are able to grant up to a $10,000 yearly scholarship four academic years in a row. Also, the selection committee never considers an applicant’s politics or religion in the award decision. At the gala there is a student who wears an Islamic roosari. This recipient--who scored first place in Iran's national university entrance exams--has bonded with Bahaiis, Jews, Christians and other Iranian youth of undetermined creed.

Packed with donors this year, at each event the numbers at the gala have been growing. Still, more funds are sought to invest beyond obviously “blue chip” students. There is hidden talent out there for historic Iranian-American innovations. With rising support and exposure, ISF hopes to go after matching university funds, potentially doubling its capacity to reach out to our community.

This year’s gala brought in over half a million dollars, including the auction overseen by hostess Rudy Bakhtiar, the journalist who occasionally lights up the CNN newsroom with her Persian charm.

The journalist Bakhtiar hosted us, the actor Jobrani gave us critical perspective, and the Persian Jazz singer, Ziba Shirazi, recorded the event in our emotional memories. Humming a Ziba Shirazi tune during the drive home, I wondered when the scholarship custom began in history. Back in the fifteenth century the wealthy Medici family took in a 13 year old kid who wasn’t much into school, but liked to draw. This is one early instance of the secular scholarship tradition that I could think of. The kid's name was Michelangelo.

Important note:
The May 31 deadline for ISF applications is approaching. Here’s the link if you know a student from anywhere in the US who would like to apply. Check out interviews with some of the ISF students here.

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