In this issue of The Wesleyan Connection, we speak with Ali Jamali ‘17, who comes to Wesleyan from Tabriz, Iran.
Q: Ali, you are Wesleyan’s first undergraduate to come from Iran. How did you make the decision to attend university in the United States, and how did you come to choose Wesleyan in particular?
A: The main reason I wanted to attend college in the United States was that we don’t have liberal arts colleges in Iran. We choose what major we’re going to study before entering university, so we don’t really have the option to explore by taking courses in different disciplines. I was not sure what I wanted to study, and most of the good majors in my country are related to engineering or medical fields. That’s why when I came across the idea of liberal education and exploring your choices before declaring your major, I decided it would be a good opportunity to study in the United States. I was looking for a relatively small university, and liked Wesleyan’s good programs and the flexibility it offered students. I was also looking forward to being near major cities like New York and Boston, because I had interests in theater and film.
Q: What are you planning to major in?
A: It’s too early to declare my major, but right now, I’m planning to major in mathematics and theater. I came to Wesleyan thinking that I was going to major in mathematics, but then when I attended a student theater production in my first semester, I instantly fell in love with theater. I had never been exposed to theater before and I found it really exciting. It’s a way of communicating with the audience in the language of art. I decided to take an acting course in the spring semester last year, and I really liked it. I decided to take more courses in the upcoming semester to see if there’s a possibility I could mix it with mathematics.
Q: Do you have a favorite class or professor so far?
A: I really liked my acting professor, [Visiting Assistant Professor of Theater] Anne Swedberg, my multivariable calculus professor, [Professor of Mathematics] Adam Fieldsteel, and my French professor, [Adjunct Lecturer in French] Catherine Ostrow. I already know four languages—Persian, Azeri, Turkish and English—but decided to study French for the past two semesters. My French classes, which exposed me to the culture as well as the language, were a really fresh experience.
Q: What else are you involved in at Wesleyan, outside of classes?
A: I write articles for the Argus’ arts section, especially reviews of music, TV shows and movies, and articles about what’s happening around campus. I’m also part of the Wesleyan Japan Society. Many of the friends I’ve made here are from Japan, and I was really interested in the culture, so I decided to join them in the student organization. It’s been really fun.
Q: What has it been like to meet people from all over the world at Wesleyan?
A: The first time I went outside my country was to go to Baku, the capital city of Azerbaijan for my SAT exam, when I was 17. Iran is rather closed, and I can’t remember seeing a foreign person before in my life. Seeing people at Wesleyan from the United States, from Asia, from Africa, it was really a huge sudden exposure to different cultures, languages and people. It was really interesting to see how people from different cultural backgrounds think and live.
Q: Can you talk about what it was like to transition to life in the U.S., and at Wesleyan in particular? Did you experience culture shock?
A: When I started learning English at age 6 or 7, I didn’t just learn the language. I learned about it mostly through music, movies, and reading books and articles on the Internet. I was already familiar with the culture and norms of the United States. So I didn’t exactly have culture shock, but Wesleyan was different than what I had expected to face in America. The most interesting part was that before coming to Wesleyan, I often found myself doing things looking for the approval of others, rather than for my own satisfaction. At Wesleyan, people don’t really do things to gain others’ approval, or because other people expect it. If you’re different or stand out, you’re accepted anyway. You do things that make yourself happy.
Q: What has been the biggest surprise about your experience here so far?
A: What really surprised me was my freedom to choose different things. It’s really easy to do something that I’ve never done before, like acting. I’ve never had any experience in acting but I was able to take an acting course, and when I look back at how much I learned and I’m still learning in the theater—which I was never, ever exposed to—it’s really amazing that Wesleyan gave me that opportunity.
Q: If a younger student from your high school asked you about coming to college in the U.S., what advice would you give him or her?
A: I would tell them to expect not just an education from Wesleyan, because this is more than an education. It’s an experience that gives you the tools for finding your deepest interests, your way to success and your definition of happiness, and then pursuing it after college. I would say that Wesleyan isn’t for someone who’s just looking to get a degree and then find a job.
Q: When friends at Wesleyan ask you about what it’s like to live in Iran, what do you tell them?
A: I tell them that it’s certainly not what you hear about in the news media. There has been a false image that Iranians are very hostile towards foreigners and they are living a very traditional life. But the truth, at least from what I know, is that Iranians are very welcoming of different cultures and backgrounds and they try to keep an open mind. You would be surprised to know how modern life is in Iran and how fast people can have access to the newest technology devices, for example. Living in Iran and the United States is like living in two different worlds. If I had been born in the United States, I wouldn’t be the same person. Living in Iran contributed so much to who I am now. Returning to my country after graduation is definitely an option, especially since the film and theater business there have a lot of room for improvement.
Q: What are your plans for the next three years at Wesleyan, and beyond?
A: I’m looking forward to taking more theater classes and seeing which part of the theater I’m interested in—whether it’s acting or directing or the technical side. I’m looking forward to auditioning for productions and hopefully doing some productions. I’m also looking forward to writing more articles for the Argus, and meeting the new people who are coming to Wesleyan. I also really love mathematics, and am excited to take more advanced courses and study new concepts. Right now, I’m trying to find the balance between mathematics and theater and see how can I combine them. I’m also looking forward to exploring the BA/MA program in mathematics.
Q: Do you have any advice for the Class of 2018?
A: Never restrict your options. Don’t come to Wesleyan saying, “I’m going to major in this and that.” Always leave an open place for exploring new possibilities, because anything can happen. I can say that these four years of college are one of the most important periods of your life. You need to treat every single day of it preciously.