Coming to America: Yousefi is an Iranian success story

At 28, Shahrouz Yousefi is older than most of his peers graduating May 18. But had he stayed in his native Tehran, Iran, he would not have gone to college at all.

The Islamic government imposes restrictions on members of Yousefi’s Bahai Faith. The religion arose in Iran in mid-19th century and, next to Islam, is the second most popular religion in Iran with 300,000 members in that country and 6 million worldwide. While Jews and Christians can seek higher education in Iran, Bahais cannot.

Shahrouz Yousefi likes to lift weights as a respite from what he calls the speedy pace of academic life. But he kept up fine, despite knowing little English when he emigrated from Iran.
Shahrouz Yousefi likes to lift weights as a respite from what he calls the speedy pace of academic life. But he kept up fine, despite knowing little English when he emigrated from Iran.

“I felt this persecution since childhood,” Yousefi says. “They view our religion as the last one to arise after Islam, and they think there should not be any religion after Muhammad.

“I am not talking about Muslims,” he adds. “I have many Muslim friends. I’m talking about the Iranian government.”

In the revolution of 1979, fundamentalists confiscated Bahai property and killed more than 200 Bahais, Yousefi says. His father, like many Bahais, lost his job.

To survive, the elder Yousefi bought a truck and began delivering fuel oil. Yousefi’s older brother assists in the business. His mother works in their home, which the Iranian government has threatened to confiscate, Yousefi says.

Drawn to electronics all his life, Yousefi decided to leave Iran in 2001 to pursue the education he desired.

He stays in touch with his family — which supports his decision — by e-mail and phone, but he hasn’t returned to his birthplace.

America was his dream. But there hasn’t been a U.S. embassy in Iran since 1979. So, he immigrated to neighboring Turkey, where he applied for immigration status in the United States. A U.S. official worked with him, and an agency arranged to send Yousefi to St. Louis, about which he knew little.

While he had a reading knowledge of English, he needed help speaking the language and following accents and dialects. The International Institute St. Louis provided lodging and food and enrolled him in a class to help improve his English.

He ended up enrolling in English as a Second Language classes at St. Louis Community College at Forest Park and began a full-time job as a parking attendant.

His language skills sharpened, and he gradually took more courses, doing so well that he became a member of Phi Theta Kappa honor society.

He told his college adviser, Sandra Knight, that he wanted to get a degree in electrical engineering. He eyed Washington University early on but ruled it out as too expensive. Then, Knight suggested something that changed Yousefi’s life.

“She encouraged me to apply here and to seek out scholarships,” Yousefi says. “She said there was lots of opportunity here.”

School of Engineering & Applied Science

In the process of seeking scholarships, he was interviewed for a special award: the Elizabeth Gray Danforth Scholarship.

Offered through the Women’s Society of Washington University and named for the University’s First Lady for 24 years, the late Elizabeth Gray Danforth, the scholarship goes to junior college transfer students.

Yousefi earned the scholarship.

“I was overjoyed to get the scholarship,” says Yousefi, who will receive a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering from the School of Engineering & Applied Science. “I so much want to thank the Women’s Society of Washington University. Without them, I never would have studied here. They really made my dream come true.”

Yousefi finds the campus beautiful and the faculty friendly and challenging. The pace, he says, is speedy. For relaxation he plays soccer and works out regularly at a local YMCA.

After graduation, Yousefi is leaning toward accepting a job offer with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office in Alexandria, Va., to gain experience and save money for graduate school. Teaching is a future possibility. Whatever Yousefi chooses, his adviser, Joseph A. O’Sullivan, thinks he’ll meet with success.

“My first meeting with Shahrouz went twice as long as scheduled — it is a real pleasure to talk with him,” says O’Sullivan, Ph.D., the Samuel C. Sachs Professor of Electrical Engineering.

“He has overcome so much already,” O’Sullivan adds. “I have confidence he will represent our University well.”