Dear Student's Aid Society,
It is with a smile on my face that I send this check to you, as "I will Survive" is playing on the radio! Every time I get your Annual Report, it reminds me of my bittersweet years, when you didn't judge me, pity me, or question me. By merely walking through your door, you knew that I was asking for help, so you extended a hand.
I entered Wellesley as a transfer sophomore in '81. I needed financial help but I'd never before asked for help in my life. Whereas my Financial Aid transactions were about filling out forms and revealing unpleasant secrets, the Student's Aid Society, didn't ask me anything. They weren't looking at me as a series of numbers but rather with soul, seeing a teenager grappling.
I'll always remember the first item I received was a trash 'can' with the image of 'The Ladies Home Journal' cover. It shows a young lady in a white Victorian dress and large hat. She's in a garden with a smile on her face, looking quite content. I still hold on dearly to this lady trash can, 33 years later. It has accompanied me to every dorm, every apartment, and every home I've moved to from the east coast to the west. Though small, it symbolizes a turning point. From the moment I met this can, I realized the importance of hope and charity.
The help went from school supplies to a world of clothing. I had to work at off-campus jobs. Student's Aid Society led me to a room full of gently used clothing and said: "Help yourself." I was incredulous, and humbled. In my head a voice said: "It's going to be ok." I get choked up recalling the generosity with no strings attached. I was able to regain my dignity and pay for college.
Further back in my story, I grew up on the other side of the hemisphere, in Tehran, Iran. My Iranian-American parents had both been raised in America but moved back to Iran to explore their heritage. Both were self-made, paying their way through college, getting scholarships and working hard.
From the 'hippy' era and folk songs in Potrero Hill, San Francisco where I was born, we moved to Tehran and restored an old townhouse where my father began a thriving practice. My architect-father and writer-mother collaborated on a book called 'The Sense of Unity', about the traditional principles of Islamic Architecture. Our fairy tale pauses here. As the joke goes: "Did you hear about the couple that wrote about unity and then split up?" My parents grew apart from each other philosophically so they got divorced. My father remarried soon after, moving to Boston for a new life.
That was the mid-70's and it was dramatic emotionally. No one had divorced parents in Iran back then. I didn't want to tell anyone at school for fear of being scorned. With a new sibling, my father's resources started to shift away. My story takes another dive with the turmoil of 78-79 and the overthrow of the Shah, the taking of US hostages, and the subsequent Islamic revolution. We went from a sheltered life to watching every drop of water. Martial Law was declared. People were forbidden to gather in groups. Riots were happening in the streets. Electricity was tuned off at 6:00 every night, so we studied by candlelight. Since we were US citizens, we feared constantly that they might find out, so we kept quiet.
It was difficult to concentrate at school but mom said education would give us a better life. Due to the embargo, my father's company went bankrupt and his assets were seized while he was living in the US. We didn't see my father for 3 years and he sent us no money. Mom scraped by with her publishing company, selling off her jewelry and carpets. We slept in one room, heated with a kerosene lamp. Classmates left and families escaped, but mom wanted me to finish. Living near Tehran University, there were student protestors running down our street, away from guards. From our window, not only did we see students fighting, but we watched in disbelief as the world we knew shattered around us.
I persevered with school, dreaming of a better life in the US. Somehow, I graduated as Valedictorian, Class President and Yearbook editor, but did not get accepted to Wellesley. We decided I must come to attend college somewhere. Saying goodbye to mom, I packed one suitcase for my trans-continental journey. I sobbed, but mom said: "It's time to go. You have to make a better life for yourself. You'll come back next year," not realizing I would never go back.
Dad was on business in Pakistan, and we planned to meet him there. Scenes of chaos at the airport are just like in the movies. If leaving a third world country during a regime change wasn't scary enough, imagine being unchaperoned, as I led my younger siblings through the crowds. In Karachi, we saw dad for the first time in 3 years. From there we were ready to depart. Dad was not a citizen so he was in a different immigration line than us. I made our way to the US line. The power of that blue passport will never escape me. I'm still haunted by images of strangers staring longingly at our documents. The US immigration guard looked at my passport, asking me where I was going. I told him to America. He said: "Your passport doesn't have an entry stamp. How did you get here?" My heart stopped. I didn't want to tell him we also had Iranian passports. After all, there were still US hostages in Iran. I had to think fast. I played on his pity for unaccompanied minors. I told him we must have gone through a 'special door' because we didn't have parents with us, pointing at my younger siblings. He looked at me, and sized me up. I showed just enough fear for him to see my innocence but enough confidence so my siblings would stay quiet. Looking desperate, I prayed: "Please let us through," as I gave him a weak smile. He raised his hand and stamped our passports, letting us go. Words can never describe that moment of relief and gratitude for being American. We reunited with dad on the other side and got on the plane towards freedom.
Once in Boston, I still had the dream of attending Wellesley. I was at Simmons College temporarily but my mother's words whispered to me "you can do better." When I stepped on campus for my Wellesley interview, that was it! I had struggled so hard to get here. Captivated by the brick walls, the historic architecture, the wise trees and the peaceful lake, it beckoned me. My prayers were answered and I was accepted as a transfer student.
Because of our frozen assets, and my father losing his money with the change in government, I was in need. The Financial Aid Office made it a reality for us with a package of grants, scholarship, loans and work study. I had never heard these words before. Still, I had to supplement with off campus income. Enter the Student's Aid Society, helping me to look prepared for interviews. I have never once regretted the financial burden of attending Wellesley. I have never once doubted all the effort it took to be here.
My siblings went back to Iran because they missed my mom, who had stayed behind. Once I began at Wellesley, war broke out between Iran and Iraq. The tables were turned and I did not see my mom or siblings for 6 years while the war was going on. But I pushed through, working two jobs nights and weekends, an on campus job weekdays, and taking classes at MIT, for which I got the 'invisible woman award' from my dorm hall. I scrimped, I saved, I went to Student's Aid Society for relief and I sat by the lake to find peace among the trees. I kept a vivid picture in my head of holding the diploma, wearing a cap and gown, as voices told me all along 'I can do it.' My dream came true and I made it on that stage with my name being called in 1984.
The story does have a happy ending. Years later, my student loans are paid up, my family is no longer in Iran, I got married at Slater to the wonderful man I met while a student here, and I love being the mom of two fantastic sons. I'm working in an architectural firm in Northern California on educational projects and I'm grateful for my blessings. I've even gotten the chance to meet Hillary Clinton twice! Someday I will have enough money to make a huge donation to Student's Aid Society - the place that helped me all those years ago with a simple trash can that promised romance and security to a needy teenager. I know that someday, my face CAN have that peaceful look of content on it too.
With heartfelt gratitude,
Mani Helene Ardalan Farhadi ’84