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Persian Culture Catches-on/Expands at UM and other U.S. Campuses

News release by University of Maryland

A growing American interest in Iranian language and culture is sparking an expansion on U.S. campuses of full-fledged Persian Studies programs, led by the University of Maryland and the Roshan Cultural Heritage Institute. The new emphasis reaches beyond geopolitical concerns to focus on language acquisition, literature and other aspects of Persian culture.

In response to this growing fascination among a diverse pool of students, Maryland's four year-old Center for Persian Studies - the first autonomous, interdisciplinary center in the field in the United States - will significantly expand its faculty, programs, research and scholarships. Funding for this initiative comes from a $3 million leadership gift by the Roshan Cultural Heritage Institute, an independent charitable foundation.
"This awakening reflects more than the coming of age of second-generation Persian-Americans seeking to explore their family's cultural heritage," says Ahmad Karimi-Hakkak, the founding director of the University of Maryland Center for Persian Studies. "About half of our students have had little or no previous connection with the subject. Some are lured by the headlines and want to develop skills in a critical language. But others feel the timeless resonance of Persian culture - and that's our focus."


Students are attracted to Persian in growing numbers, according to Karimi-Hakkak. At a typical state university, he says 30 to 40 entering students are interested in a language like Persian. He estimates that these numbers have increased by nearly 50 percent over the past few years. Nationwide, about 70 universities offer some Persian language courses. About half of these have significant programs in literature and culture.

Academically, Karimi-Hakkak says the new trend is to broaden the focus and create autonomous, interdisciplinary centers dedicated to Persian Studies. Maryland opened the first, and two years ago a second opened at the University of California at Irvine.

"This approach has some significant advantages, and helps Persian studies to come into its own as a comprehensive field," says Nariman Farvardin, University of Maryland provost and one of the nation's highest ranking university officials of Persian extraction. "Our ultimate goal is to create a full-fledged minor and major in Persian studies. Many of our courses are taught in English and we're encouraged by the students' enthusiasm."

The Roshan Cultural Heritage Institute, has played a major role in the academic development and expansion of Persian studies, stimulating planning and helping support programs at several universities in the United States and internationally.

 "When I began the Institute in 2000, my goal was to promote the kind of cross-cultural clarity that is so desperately needed today," says Elahe Mir-Djalali Omidyar, an expert in cross-cultural studies and linguistics and the president and CEO of the Roshan Cultural Heritage Institute. "In Persian, the word "roshan" means "clear."  Persian culture and history did not begin two decades ago - it stretches back 3,500 years. I'm helping pioneer this new academic concentration because cultural understanding and appreciation are essential to effective communication, essential to the development of non-antagonistic and more productive relationships."


Adam Fried: History major who transferred to Maryland mainly for the opportunity to enroll in Persian studies courses; "Not only do they give non-Persian students the opportunity to learn about an area that is often misunderstood and misrepresented, but the program also provides Persian students with a cultural center - a sort of home away from home - whose relevance is undeniable and irreplaceable."

Neda Khalili: Art History and French major who lives in a Persian-speaking cluster in a special foreign language dorm; "I came to Persian studies for self-enrichment and a closer connection to my own culture. I am a first generation Iranian American and my family strongly embraces education, culture and heritage. These classes truly help me embrace that goal. Also, people are opening up and learning about more distant cultures. We are slowly but steadily building a more open-minded society."

Robert Stewart: "I am a German Studies major, and I began taking classes offered by the Center in an attempt to discover more about Persian culture. Indeed this is a complex undertaking for which the Center has become my home base. It is a resource for both heritage and non heritage students."

Behrad Behbahani: Finance major who was surprised and gratified when the Center for Persian Studies first opened; "I could not wait to register for a Persian class," he explains. "I was interested in taking these classes because I have a great interest in my native culture and always want to know as much as I can about it.. I felt it would be another foothold that Iranians would have in the community."


The international popularity of the 12th century mystical poet Rumi, as he is known in the West, demonstrates the appeal of traditional Persian culture, says Karimi-Hakkak. Rumi's 800th birthday falls at the end of September, and the United Nations has declared 2007 as International Rumi Year.

The anniversary is being marked around the world in a series of events including a Rumi conference conducted in English at the University of Maryland sponsored by the Center for Persian Studies.

"Rumi's message is universal in scope and as relevant today as it was 800 years ago," says Karimi-Hakkak. "As this rich heritage unfolds to the West, it translates into greater student interest. The Persian language of Rumi's time is virtually identical to the one used today. So his works are accessible in a way that Chaucer and other distant literature are not. All this translates into the growing student interest in Persian studies programs."


The new $3 million dollar gift from the Roshan Cultural Heritage Institute will endow four new funds, enabling the University of Maryland's newly named Roshan Cultural Heritage Institute Center for Persian Studies to add new faculty, undergraduate scholarships, graduate fellowships and new programs:

--Roshan Cultural Heritage Institute Chair in Persian Language and Linguistics ($1.7 million);

--Roshan Cultural Heritage Institute Fellowship for Excellence in Persian Studies providing graduate fellowships aimed at a wide spectrum of students ($500,000);

--Roshan Cultural Heritage Institute Undergraduate Scholarship for Excellence in Persian studies to recruit a varied student base ($400,000);

--Roshan Cultural Heritage Institute Endowment for Persian Programs - funding to support a variety of outreach and educational efforts ($400,000).

The mission of the Roshan Cultural Heritage Institute is embodied in three goals: 1) To support existing U.S. Persian studies programs and create new ones where needed; 2) to provide excellent Persian studies students with fellowships and scholarships to support and encourage their efforts; 3) helping plan and fund Persian cultural activities and conferences in the United States and abroad.

"This gift is the largest we've ever made in pursuit of the Institute's goals, and it reflects our commitment to cultural understanding," says the Roshan Cultural Heritage Institute's president and CEO, Elahe Mir-Djalali Omidyar. "We work to fortify and support Persian studies because we strongly believe that cultural education is the best way to avoid misunderstandings and miscommunications."


The University of Maryland's Roshan Cultural Heritage Institute Center for Persian Studies was the first full-fledged academic center focused on the Persian-speaking cultures in Iran, Afghanistan and Central Asia. The center also includes study of the Persian-speaking Diaspora around the world.

Included in the curriculum is Persian language instruction, literature and other cultural studies. Courses also address the social and political changes that have transformed Iranian culture in the past two centuries. A number of courses are conducted in English.

The university also offers a Persian-speaking "cluster" in a special immersion dorm called Language House. All communication is conducted there in Persian. There are currently 10 students in the cluster. Altogether there are eight language clusters.

Also, Maryland is one of the few universities in the U.S. that has a Persian radio channel broadcasting internationally via the Internet. This student-run Persian language Podcast is produced weekly.

Neil Tickner
University Communications
301-405-4622, 301-257-0073 (after-hours)

... Payvand News - 9/28/07 ... --

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