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The Job Search: Dr. Saranaz Barforoush

September 28, 2018

The Job Search is a series for international graduate students.

Dr. Saranaz BarforoushDr. Saranaz Barforoush was born in Tehran, Iran in 1982 to a family of educators and dedicated liberals. The country just survived a revolution that ousted a Western-leaning leader, a group of Iranian students had just taken 52 Americans hostage, and the country was suddenly at war with Iraq.

These events shaped Barforoush’s worldview and eventual career path. "My earliest memories are of the 'bomb nights' during the war in Tehran, where my parents, aunts, and grandparents would huddle around a small radio in my grandfather's basement listening to BBC Radio, for some outside news about the war," recalls Barforoush.

When she was three years old, Barforoush’s family moved to Great Britain, so that her father could obtain his Ph.D. It was a mixed blessing – an opportunity for an education during a brutal war. The distance from family, coupled with the immigrant experience proved to be an interesting experience for the Barforoush family in Bristol.

"Since the 1979 revolution, being an Iranian immigrant hasn’t been and still isn’t easy - anywhere in the world. I was an immigrant kid from a country that almost everyone I met had an opinion about. I was one of the few non-white kids in my school, and for years, the only one in my class. In most of my class photos, the photographer moved me to the middle to create some contrast because of my black hair," remembers Barforoush.

After school, and in the evenings, it was all about the news from home. "Most of our dinners were around the TV, and our Iranian immigrant friends were always talking about the 'news back home.' Even at a small age, I always wanted to listen in on the adult discussion and the news. Despite my mother’s best efforts to shield me from the chaos, I couldn't stop asking questions, and would beg my parents to let me watch the news," says Barforoush.

In the early 1990s, the family returned to post-war Iran. It was a time of excitement and change. At university, Barforoush was ready to become a journalist. After working as one for almost a decade, Barforoush left Iran in 2009, eventually ending up at UMD two years later. She is currently a lecturer at the University of British Columbia's Graduate School of Journalism in Canada.

When you came to study in the U.S., what were your perceptions?

I didn't have too many preconceived notions. I had visited the U.S. before, and my father taught at UMD as a visiting professor years ago. Also, contrary to public belief, the United States is pretty well known in Iran. So, I knew what to expect. But, upon arrival, I was shocked at the political and racial atmosphere in the United States. I had no idea racial tensions were still so present. That’s something you might not experience as a tourist, but when you live in the States you realize that racial tensions are very much part of your social experience.

How is journalism perceived in your home country? Why did you come and study in the U.S.? 

Journalism is considered a dangerous profession in Iran, but it's also a respected one. People thought I was crazy to get into this field back home. But I never second-guessed my decision. I was also 27 and I wanted to experience living abroad independently. Being an immigrant is always a challenge. Being an Iranian adds to that in this day and age. The challenges sometimes outweigh the opportunities for someone in my shoes.

How did you prepare for your [faculty] job search?

From the start of my last year here at UMD, I began to make a list of places and fields I could work in, and started flagging application deadlines. With the help of my advisor, Dr. Susan Moeller, I started preparing my documents. But, this all happened after spending weeks and months talking with Professor Moeller.

What experiences as a graduate student (beyond your academic work) contributed to finding a faculty position? 

As I mentioned before, I owe a lot of my success to Professor Moeller. She spent hours going over my work, various documents, and talking to me about what it is I wanted to do. She really spent the time to get to know me and my goals. I truly believe that her input was immensely valuable. I think talking to faculty members, former students, and my peers were very important in my experience.

What advice or tool worked well as you searched? What did not work?

What really worked was being myself and staying true to my abilities. I wouldn’t recommend trying to make yourself sound like good fit, when sometimes you just aren’t and that’s OK. What really worked was knowing my abilities, and honest about my weaknesses.

Does a journalism faculty member have a specialized skill set? 

Yes, like most disciplines, we have specific skills. Most of us have worked as journalists and use our journalistic experiences in the classroom. In my classroom, there is the freedom and safety for students to speak their minds. This is often reflected in class evaluations – and in turn, these evaluations are an effective tool when looking for teaching jobs.

How did you work on your CV? What was the process? Who looked at it?

I worked on it for a number of days with Professor Moeller - she was instrumental in teaching me how a professional portfolio should look. Also, asking to see the application packages from former students was quite helpful in realizing how to present myself.

Career aspirations? What do you hope to do long term? What might be a book you would like to write?

I would like to write and do more research. I am moving toward finding a tenure track position and increasing my publications, and fascinated with foreign reporting and how journalists report on foreign countries. I am interested in writing about immigrants and their struggles. There are a number of topics I would like to write about. One that comes to mind is how we as immigrants experience the world through news and misrepresentation.  I think of my parents' experience as students in the U.S. during the [1979-1981] hostage crisis, and how the misrepresentation of our ethnic and religious background continues. I am fascinated by the influence of geopolitical relations in understanding the 'other.' We often judge immigrants by the political relationship between their home country and where they live/work – using that construct to determine if that immigrant is friend or foe. For example, I recently did a project with our UBC masters students in Turkey. I think the refugee stories are still very much untold, and that is something I look forward to pursuing. I am also fascinated by world leaders and I devoted my dissertation to studying the representation of leaders from China and Iran in the U.S. news media - I would like to expand that study, and perhaps turn it into a book.

Where did you actually obtain work? What was the process like?

I obtained work in Canada. I was in the middle of writing my dissertation when the position at the University of British Columbia (UBC) was advertised, and with the help of my incredible advisor I prepared my package. Within a few weeks I was interviewed. I did look for work in U.S., but with the election of Donald Trump it appeared that the U.S., as an Iranian, was not a place where I could work and travel easily.

How do you continue networking locally? And globally?

Staying in touch with people I met at UMD, going to conferences and following social media accounts for journalism education.

What do you think your Iranian culture can add to your work as a journalist and educator? 

I don’t know if it’s an Iranian mindset, as much as an immigrant mindset where you constantly tell yourself 'failure is not an option.' I wrote the final chapters of my thesis, and defended weeks after my mother passed. I don’t think I could have done it if during those years in England I hadn’t seen her and my father work day and night as immigrant scholars.

I think a lot of young people are deeply interested in global social issues (equity, social justice and diversity, for example) and I wonder if you have those interests as they pertain to your work? 

Yes, I do. I am devoting my career to understanding and researching how as journalists we can accurately represent the 'other,' and how can we help journalists who report in conflict zones or suppressed countries. I am eager to explore how as educators we can prepare the future generation of journalists to overcome biases, and produce more responsible journalistic products.

Any advice to other international students?

Keep going! Make friends. I could have not gone through my Ph.D. without my friends within and outside the school - late night Persian parties at my place in College Park, lunch with my friends, and coffee with anyone in the Ph.D. office who wanted to procrastinate. Those are a must. And remember having an accent means you know another language, so you are already a step ahead of most people. Don’t be afraid of making mistakes, you don’t have to be perfect, no one is.

More information about Dr. Saranaz Barforoush can be found here.

(By Anna De Cheke Qualls)(Photo Credit: Dr. Saranaz Barforoush)

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