CLICK ON IMAGE TO VIEW VIDEO
Underground university: Bay Area teachers beam secret online classes to Iran
By Katy Murphy
San Jose Mercury News
Video available @ NBC Bay Area News
Banned from college in Iran because of her Baha’i faith, College of Environmental Design alumna Niknaz Aftahi (M.Arch ‘14) risked everything to learn, studying architecture at a storied underground university that moved from living room to living room, at times meeting at her family’s home in Tehran.
Now in the Bay Area, with a master’s degree and a job in architecture, Aftahi is repaying her debt of gratitude, offering the same hope to the next generation of Baha’i students. She is part of a growing network of mostly Baha’i faculty around the world who teach and mentor the students from afar, for free.
“Just the fact that I feel like I’m contributing a little bit brings me a lot of satisfaction and happiness,” she said. “Some of my students are such good designers. When I teach them, I really want to do my best because I feel like I’m the only resource they have.”
Aftahi teaches design at night for the Baha’i Institute for Higher Education from her Richmond home, beaming her lessons over the internet to her dedicated students, more than 6,500 miles and 11 time zones away.
More than 5 million Baha’is span the globe, and roughly 300,000 live in Iran, where they form the nation’s largest non-Muslim religious minority, according to the Baha’i International Community, a nongovernmental organization long recognized by the United Nations. The faith — which teaches the unity of religion and does not have clergy — originated in Iran, but persecution against its members and other religious minorities intensified after the Iranian Revolution of 1979.
Teaching Baha’i students, banned from Iranian universities, is a dangerous business for those living inside the country. The classes are routinely raided, but having professors, teaching assistants and other supporters on the ground, risking arrest, is essential for the survival of the 29-year-old institute.
Supporters say that the school’s burgeoning online component has helped it weather waves of government crackdowns. Not only does it link students to hundreds of academics from around the globe, they say, but it protects precious educational materials from being wiped out during raids.
Aftahi recalls her mother’s panic one day as a bearded student she didn’t recognize rang the doorbell while the class met at their home in Tehran. They frantically packed up their papers only to find, to their relief, that the visitor was not a government official, but a classmate.
In contrast to the large design studios at CED, Aftahi and her classmates in Tehran took over every room of a friend’s house to work on their projects.
“I have so many good memories of that time,” said Aftahi, “even though there was so much uncertainty, and any day they could come after you.”