This is the painful story of one BIHE student who wished he could be attending Tehran University and was denied attendance to because of his belief.
How did you learn about BIHE?
The Bahá’í community is a small and very organized one. People receive the news both via official ways, meaning announcements through Feasts [Bahá’í community gathering], and word of mouth. By the time I wanted to apply to BIHE though, it was not a new thing anymore, but a norm for Iranian Bahá’í students.
What was your experience like during your time as an undergraduate student at BIHE?
I think the experience has been unique in many ways, both in the difficulties and the blessings. Because we didn’t have the suitable locations or equipment, our classes would be held in the living room of one of the students. We simply couldn’t afford to have classes more than six times a semester, which meant that the classes were only for question/answer rather than teaching. On the other hand we were blessed with an attitude of love and support that usually bonds the members of an oppressed group.
What course material did you cover?
For most of the courses we used the materials used in North American universities to keep our standards comparable to theirs. Some of these resources were actually found in bookstores and other public shops, but many of them were not, and these latter ones were purchased by BIHE staff and were mailed to Iran. We would oftentimes end up sharing the books among ourselves.
Who were the teachers/professors? What were their qualifications?
Until 2005, the instructors were mainly the Bahá’í former professors who had been expelled from the universities after the Revolution. Some of them were physicians whose job wasn’t really teaching in a university, but they had the knowledge in their fields. A few of the instructors were Muslims who wished to help the Institute. In 2005, the Institute started to take a new approach, namely using the opportunity for distant learning through the online education facilities, which paved the way for a huge number of professors around the world to start helping BIHE.
What were the risks involved with being a professor, student, administrator associated with BIHE?
The main risk has always been imprisonment. For many, this has already happened and there are still many professors and administrators in jail. For hosts of the classes, there has also been a risk of having their property confiscated. This has happened a number of times with regards to our “labs” which had to be held in set locations and obviously couldn’t be moved.
Did you feel that the course material you studied was at the standard of most institutions of higher education?
When I was in my undergrad, I used to compare our coursework to that of the students in regular universities of Iran, whenever I would get the chance. The cases were limited so I cannot make a general judgement, but I had the impression that we were doing a more difficult job.
Here, I have never taken a [undergraduate] course, so I cannot really compare.
How have you found the transition from attending BIHE for both your undergraduate degree as well as your Master’s degree to Queen’s University?
As stated, BIHE didn’t even have a campus! Forget about labs, offices, classrooms, etc. I have, however, experienced being on a real campus before coming to Queen’s University, at Lyon, France, where I visited the lab of my Master’s supervisor for a couple of months. I have also been into regular universities of Iran, secretly, attending the classes by asking the professor’s permissions and telling them that I was not a student (I officially wasn’t!) and was just eager to attend, and it would work sometimes.
But this is the first physically existing university that I belong to, that I can get in without needing a friend coming and signing a “Guest’s Entrance permission” form on my behalf—Iran’s universities are very regulated and you are not allowed into campus, which is surrounded by walls, without being associated with the institution—that I can walk through without worrying about being stopped and sent out.
What were some of the unique experiences or opportunities you were exposed to as a student of BIHE?
I guess there were many. One of the primary experiences was experiencing all the devotion and love that came about from sharing the difficulties and successes with my classmates. University life can become harsh at times, and you can easily find your instructor being unreasonably demanding or even unkind. But even given all this, there were moments that you would be impressed by the amount of love and support that they would invest in their work.
My supervisor during my Master’s hosted me at her home for the duration of my stay there, paid for my travel expenses, and helped me with all the process of getting an entry visa for France. All just to give me a chance to experience working in her lab and have my thesis defence with a jury from her department—BIHE didn’t have any other experts in her field, except herself—as well as presenting my poster at a conference held in her city.
One of my professors who lived in Toronto, which is 8 hours behind Tehran, where I was, had to get up at 5:00 a.m. once every week to have classes with us before she went to work. It was a precious moment for me when I came to Canada and could hug her and see her, after having heard only her voice for years. Studying at BIHE has developed a strong sense of appreciation in me for everything that makes life much more beautiful.
How has BIHE changed in recent years?
BIHE started as a small group of people dedicated to providing education for those who were deprived of it. Now, it has grown to an Institute with over a thousand students whose goals for education are not limited to just uplifting their personal life situations. BIHE has recently set a more specific direction for its future, and it is contributing to the socio-economic development of Iran. This has made some huge changes to the dynamics of the institute in several ways.
First, because this new model requires a lot of interaction with the Iranian society at large, it increases the risks that the Institute faces. Second, because the goals have a more social perspective, the attitude of service and sacrifice inside the Institute has intensified, which can sometimes become exhausting. Third, because of the nature of the immediate demands of society, the focus of the Institute might turn into more practical aspects of knowledge, rather than more theoretical approaches.
Is there any other information that you think that readers of this publication should know?
These alterations to the Institute’s structure and programs have increased the risks for individuals associated with BIHE. Now more than ever they need the support of organizations and people in order to continue their work in providing education to those whose rights have been removed, and contributing to the advancement of society.
Keep in touch with your university’s Campus Association for Bahá’í Studies (CABS) group for updates on campus events to support the Bahá’ís in Iran.