The 40+ Year Graduate

Sherry Hakimi
May 30, 2019 · 6 min read

This morning, my brother and I proudly watched our Harvard cap-and-gown-clad mother proceed into Harvard Yard for commencement ceremonies. This afternoon, my 80-year-old grandmother watched her 57-year-old daughter walk across the stage and accept her degree from Harvard University. My grandmother’s eyes were filled with tears, but the look of pride on her face was unmistakable. This was the first time my grandmother had seen one of her children graduate from college.

My mom works at Harvard. Specifically, she works at the Harvard Kennedy School. She started working at the university in 1999 as an administrative assistant at the Harvard Children’s Initiative, a small research initiative that was shuttered in 2000 due to budget cuts. However, a brilliant woman in Human Resources named Beth saw something in my mom Minoo, and when the Initiative was shut down, Beth hired Minoo at the Kennedy School as Jeff Sachs’ second assistant. Beth certainly didn’t know it at the time, but she changed Minoo’s life, and mine, too.

Born and raised in Tehran, Minoo was a precocious child. When she completed the fourth grade, her mother whimsically asked her if she wanted to go to seventh grade in the fall alongside her older sister. Minoo dutifully said “yes”, which meant that she spent that summer going to an accelerated school program in Tehran while her entire extended family was away at their summer home, outside of Tehran. She successfully completed fifth and sixth grade in just two months, and matriculated in the seventh grade shortly before she turned 10 years old. She graduated from high school at age 16, and was sent off to London to begin her college studies in 1977. As the news of political turmoil in Iran escalated, her unease with being away with her family became unbearable. Minoo returned to Iran in 1978; the Islamic Revolution became official in February 1979.

Minoo’s father was the head of the military’s medical readiness unit in Tehran. In addition to serving as a colonel in the military, he was a partner in a private radiology lab named TechnoMedic. During the upheaval of the Revolution, Minoo wasn’t sure what she wanted to do next, so she worked at TechnoMedic as an assistant for about six months. There, she was inspired by the work she saw being done around her, and she decided she wanted to become a radiologist. However, universities in Iran were closed due to the political turmoil, so Minoo applied to Johns Hopkins University. She was admitted, and planned to matriculate in January 1980.

With these plans in mind, Minoo stood in line to pick up her American student visa on November 4, 1979 — also known as the day that Iranian revolutionaries decided to overtake the American embassy. She left the embassy safely that day, but needless to say, US-Iran diplomatic relations were cut and her student visa was among the thousands that were revoked. Soon after that, the Iran-Iraq War began. Universities in Iran were still closed, as were borders. Minoo was stuck, and her education and plans were on hold indefinitely.

In the early days after the Revolution, her family suffered devastating losses that are difficult to speak of to this day. But, when the opportunity arose for Minoo to marry the younger brother of a close family friend, my grandparents were all for it. Within a few months, it was all arranged, and 21-year-old Minoo arrived in Boston, MA on June 1, 1982 and got married shortly thereafter. Her new husband didn’t support the idea of her going back to school. In fact, he generally wasn’t a fan of the idea of her being anything other than a housewife; going to college and becoming a radiologist became a distant dream.

For the sake of time, we’re going to fast-forward through the ~40 years that Minoo has been on her college journey. The list and range of obstacles that she has overcome are significant and severe: living through political upheaval and war in her home country; grieving the brutal loss of a brother; immigrating to a new country alone; entering an arranged marriage; surviving domestic abuse so violent that it could have ended her life while pregnant with her second child; moving back to Iran in the mid-90s, and realizing that she had to escape its patriarchal legal system in order to get a divorce at age 36; solo breadwinning for a family of 3; and raising two young kids as a single mother. She did all of this with no more than the high school degree she earned at age 16.

My mom’s job at the Kennedy School altered my life, too. Being in a research center at an academic institution gave my mom access to parenting shortcuts that most breadwinner-caregivers don’t have. My mom would come home with research reports and books, most of which she would pass on to me. It felt like our house was full of research papers written by various HKS visiting fellows, books by various Harvard professors, and printed articles about economic development, politics, and international affairs. As a single parent struggling to make ends meet and raising two kids, she didn’t have a lot of time and her own formal education had been cut short. But, she was a quick learner and she was resourceful. Using whatever limited resources she had, Minoo wanted to cultivate both my and my brother’s curiosity and intellectual development. As a mother, she knew that I was a bookworm who would read whatever was put in front of me. She constantly told me about the heads of state, experts, and influential leaders who spoke and taught at the Kennedy School. She would frequently get both me and my brother to attend Kennedy School speaker events and Forum events with her, in addition to HKS summer socials and the annual Christmas Party. It was because of my mom’s cultivation of my curiosity and interests that I had my sights set on attending the Kennedy School before I had even graduated from high school.

Because my family has been around this institution for 20 years, it feels like home to me in a way that is likely quite different than what most other graduates feel towards the School. Harvard isn’t just where I, and now my mom, received an education; it’s also the institution that brought my family a sense of stability. Working at the University meant my mom had job security, good health benefits, and kind, thoughtful coworkers. It meant she was able to supplement her children’s educational and intellectual development with exposure to exceptional people, events, and ideas. It also meant that once both her kids went off to college and she no longer had full-time caregiving responsibilities, she could restart the college journey that she began in 1977.

I don’t know what she’ll do next, but watching my mom achieve this milestone — this life goal that she’s held on to for so long — makes me cry the happiest tears that I’ve ever cried. Her life, and our lives, could have turned out very differently. Her tenacity and creativity in the face of difficulty has been the delta in our family’s ability to rebuild. Her grit is the foundation on which my brother and I pursued our individual dreams and paths. Her persistence in pursuing her personal goal will always be an inspiration.

I’m sharing this story because I want to honor my mother and her accomplishment in every way I know how. When I graduated from the Kennedy School, my mom beamed with pride for weeks. She insisted on throwing a big graduation party, which I didn’t want and tried to prevent. My protests kept falling on deaf ears, though, and I realized that the party was more for her — a celebration of all that our family had overcome — more than it was actually for me. Now that she’s graduating from the same institution, my honoring her begins with telling the story of how she got here in the first place. A big graduation party will come at some point.

In the meantime, if you see Minoo in the coming days and weeks, please don’t forget to congratulate her. It’s been more than 40 years in the making, but it’s now official: she’s a member of the Harvard Class of 2019.

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