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IUPUI Partnership with University of Tehran of Historical Significance

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May 1, 2009

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When historians write about efforts to normalize relations between Iran and the United States, they are likely to note that one of the first diplomatic steps to improve the relationship took place at IUPUI with the arrival of 33 engineering students from the University of Tehran.

The arrival of the Iranian students in the fall of 2007 signaled a partnership between IUPUI and the University of Tehran that is an affiliation of historic significance, said Susan Sutton, Associate Vice Chancellor of International Affairs at IUPUI and Associate Vice President of Indiana University’s Office of International Affairs.

The Iranian students came here to participate in an engineering program in which they spend two years studying engineering at the University of Tehran and then two years studying engineering at IUPUI. Each institution awards the students an engineering degree.

A proposal to expand the program to six years – in which University of Tehran students would be awarded bachelors and masters of engineering degrees – has been advanced by the two universities. The two universities are discussing details of the proposal, while waiting for formal approval from the U.S. Treasury Department to proceed with the initiative.

In the 1970s, Iranian students represented the largest number of foreign students studying in the United States. That ended in 1979, when political events changed the situation.
“These events did not, however, erase the strong academic bonds between the two countries,” Sutton said. “Even today, a survey of faculty at Iranian universities shows that a significant percentage received their education in the U.S. They and their students are eager to re-open scholarly collaboration with U.S. faculty and students.”

Three years ago, the U.S. Departments of State and Treasury gave permission for two American universities to engage in formal relationships with Iranian institutions: the University of California-Davis and IUPUI.

“As the President of the University of Tehran says, this is ‘academic diplomacy’ of the highest order, an opportunity for citizens of our two countries to understand and work with each other apart from the realm of politics,” Sutton said. “The partnership,” she noted, “is not an endorsement of any particular political leader, but rather an endorsement of the value of people-to-people interaction in building our collective future.”

“IUPUI’s goal is to develop dynamic, cross-cultural educational communities though strategic partnerships with universities abroad,” said IUPUI Chancellor Charles R. Bantz. “Having students from the University of Tehran in our engineering and technology classes broadens all students’ perspectives and will, we hope, contribute to improved U.S.-Iranian relations over time.”

The University of Tehran is the oldest and largest university in Iran, with 32,000 students. Established in 1934, it has a similar history to IUPUI, in that it was created by integrating pre-existing institutions, including independent schools of medicine and art among others, in order to establish a unified university in the capital city.

Academically, the program has been a success, said H. Öner Yurtseven, dean of the Purdue School of Engineering and Technology at IUPUI.

The Iranian students are well prepared in math and science, and have earned an average of more than 3.5 GPA in their IUPUI classes.

“Many of the students have a grade point average that is high enough for them to enter the masters program,” he noted. As with the bachelor’s program, the school still has excess capacity in its masters program to admit Iranian students without displacing other students.

Diplomatically, he believes, the program also will be a success, providing a small step toward normalizing relations between the two countries.

Because Iran has not sent students to study in the U.S. since 1979, providing Iranian students the chance to live and study in the United States can have a positive impact, he believes. “Over a period of years, the IUPUI program will produce a few hundred Iranian students with U.S. degrees. Hopefully, they will be the next generation of administrators and movers and shakers over there.”
That’s important, he added, because the last generation of Iranians to receive degrees from U.S. universities – including senior faculty and faculty who are chairs of departments within the University of Tehran’s School of Engineering – are preparing to retire.

Just as Iranian students benefit, so do Hoosiers attending IUPUI, Yurtseven said.
Given the demand for engineering services around the world, IUPUI students are likely to find themselves one day sent on overseas assignments where they will encounter new and different technologies, he said.

“The next best thing for our students who don’t travel abroad is to bring the world into their classroom,” Yurtseven said.

Amir Arya can vouch for the value of the experience of studying in another country.
Arya was attending another university in Iran - Khaje Nasir Toosi University - when he heard about the new initiative between the University of Tehran and IUPUI. He transferred to the University of Tehran, deciding to stick with mechanical engineering as a major and dropping his plans to swith to aerospace engineering.

“I talked with my dad. He encouraged me, saying mechanical engineering is the same all over the world and you will have the experience of studying in another country, another culture. It sounded great.”

Warned that he would experience culture shock, Arya was prepared for a cultural jolt when he arrived in Indiana. Instead, he said he has been warmly received by Hoosiers, even if some seemed to confuse Iraq with Iran.

Among the questions he has fielded: how is the war going in Iran? Among the perceptions he has encountered: Iranians are people with beards standing in the desert with guns.
During a presentation about the culture of Iran, Arya said he began by saying, “Hey, guys, first of all hello. Second, repeat after me: Iran is not Iraq.”

Ironically, Arya said, he experienced greater cultural shock during a visit to Dubai than in Indianapolis. “People here are somehow the same as in Iran. I feel free here, good here. It is like living in my own country.”