New UCLA undergraduate Parvin Arman shows her Bruin pride outside the Student Activities Center with her grandchildren Josh, 10, and twins Eva and Leah Khorsandi, 8.
“My name is Parvin. I am from Iran. I am a grandma.”
That’s not the typical introduction you’d hear from undergraduate students, but it’s one that speaks volumes about one woman’s personal determination and commitment to education.
At 70 years old, Parvin Arman, a transfer student from Los Angeles City College, happens also to be the oldest member of UCLA’s incoming class starting their college careers this fall.
The daughter of a teacher and a school principal at a small Jewish school in Central Iran, it comes as no surprise that education has always been important to Parvin. Many of her early memories are of her mother, the teacher, reading books and leading classroom lessons.
“She taught me that I should always be learning,” said Parvin, the oldest of 10 siblings, three of whom hold degrees from UCLA.
Unfortunately, as her love of learning grew, so did the impediments to getting an education, according to Parvin’s granddaughter Alicia Arman, a Harvard graduate student studying education policy.
“My grandmother came up against tremendous social and institutional forces that were designed to keep her out of higher education,” said Alicia. “It took a while but she’s doing it, and she’s doing it for herself, which I think is great. She’s not doing it to make more money or impress somebody; she’s doing it because she always wanted to. I think there’s so much value in that.”
Parvin completed elementary school at the top of her class at a time when Jewish children in Iran could not easily go on to high school. There were some boys who got to go, she recalled, but it was rare for a girl — especially a Jewish girl.
After she pleaded with her parents to allow her to go to school, they finally consented. It wasn’t that they didn’t believe that she should be educated, Parvin explained. But they were just concerned for her well-being. To go to high school meant that she, as the first Jewish girl to ever attend her high school, would be alone.
“As a Jewish student, nobody talks to you, nobody touches anything of yours and you cannot touch anything of anybody else’s,” said Parvin, recalling that difficult time in her life. “If I want to drink water, they wouldn’t let me. They said … I was to just sit there and listen. It was hard.”
After graduating from high school at 17, Parvin married her husband, a rug maker by trade. The newlyweds moved to Tehran and soon welcomed their first child, a son, Farshid. By the time Parvin was 27, she was a mother of two boys and two girls and was devoting all of her time and energy to raising her young family.
But her yearning for learning remained, and the importance of education was something that she worked to instill in her children.
In 1978, she applied to study computer science at a college in Tehran and was accepted. With her youngest daughter, Leyla, starting school fulltime, it seemed like the perfect time for her to revisit her goal of earning a degree.
But her college career was abruptly cut short when revolution broke out in Iran just one year after she’d started, and college campuses were subsequently shut down.
With tensions rising, Parvin and her husband recognized that Iran was no longer a safe place for their family. Their oldest son, Farshid, then 16, was sent by himself to live in the United States.
“I didn’t see him again for 11 years because the Islamic government did not permit Jewish families to travel,” Parvin said. “We were really stuck in our country.” By then, he had graduated with degrees in electrical engineering from the University of New Mexico and the University of Texas.
Several years after Farshid emigrated to the United States, Parvin’s three other children followed. But she and her husband had to stay behind.
“The Islamic government would let my kids go if my husband I stayed in Iran,” she said. “It was an opportunity for my kids to immigrate to the U.S, but it meant that we couldn’t be together.”
In 2002, after the Iranian government's policy changed, Parvin and her husband were finally allowed to leave Iran. Not only was this life-changing because she could be reunited with her children — and two grandchildren — but it meant that she could finally resume her college studies, something that she has never stopped longing for.
Although Parvin spoke very little English, she was committed to becoming fluent and setting a positive example for her children and grandchildren. So in 2004, she applied and was accepted to Los Angeles City College.
The sociology major, whose name landed on the Dean’s List several times, chipped away at earning her associate’s degree by taking one or two classes a semester until she graduated.
The grandmother of seven not only managed the demands of college life, she also helped care for her grandchildren, including two sets of twins — one set born to daughter Parisa, a doctor in Santa Monica; and another set born to daughter Leyla, an engineer in San Francisco.
Parvin was very excited when she heard that she had been accepted to UCLA. So was her entire family, including Farshid, now a director for renewable energy at Siemens Technology to Business Center at Berkeley, who immediately sent her a UCLA sweatshirt.
“I was very happy that she’d been accepted to UCLA until UCLA beat my school in football,” he said, laughing, referring to the game on Sept. 16 when the Bruins celebrated a gripping 20-17 victory over the Longhorns. “I went to the University of Texas, so I had to teach her how to be proud of her school beating my school. We have lots of UCLA relatives. I am the only one who went to a university outside of California. I am the outsider.”
With classes starting today, Parvin’s fall quarter schedule includes two sociology classes and an Iranian culture class. She is eager to start school and meet her professors and classmates, but, like most new students, she is also a little nervous.
“I think she’ll do well,” said Alicia, who has the utmost confidence in her grandmother and what she can bring to the classroom. “First of all, she’s really, really smart — I didn’t necessarily know how book-smart she was until she started college. And the fact that she is as mature as she is will only help her. Sharing her experience of having lived in the time and place she did will add a perspective that people ages 18-24 won’t have.”