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From Iranian Prisoner To MBA: An Outcast Finds His Mission

Ehsan Amozegar stands in a turbine hall in a thermal power plant in Iran where he helped build a water treatment system for water conservation. Amozegar is now a second-year MBA candidate at the Rady School of Management at UC-San Diego. Courtesy photo

Ehsan Amozegar struggled to get an education in Iran. A member of the Baha’i community, “which has been systematically persecuted by the Iranian government,” he faced discrimination — and even imprisonment — by seeking an advanced degree. Even seeking personal advancement carried risks in the Islamic Republic of Iran.

“Baha’i’s,” the 31-year-old Amozegar tells Poets&Quants, “can’t have higher education, or governmental or high-paid jobs, especially in strategic industries.”

It’s not hard to find horror stories about Iran’s treatment of those of the Baha’i faith. The obstacles Amozegar faced are both typical and extraordinary. But this story has a happy ending: After years of struggling to get an education in his home country, Amozegar — driven to create sustainable businesses — came to the United States and recently finished his first year at UC-San Diego’s Rady School of Management.

This is the story of how he got there.

‘THEY THOUGHT I WAS DANGEROUS’

Amozegar in May on the UCSD campus, giving a public speech about overcoming limits and following your goals. Courtesy photo

Baha’i principles are very much in line with those of sustainability, celebrating the unity and equality of all humanity and encouraging a society that supports and protects nature while evolving and improving over time. But in Iran, Baha’i’s are commonly expelled from universities and shunned at the highest levels of government and commerce. Six months after starting a bachelor degree program, Amozegar’s wife was expelled in accordance with a confidential order, forcing her to attend the parallel Baha’i school, called the Baha’i Institution for Higher Education (BIHE), which functions privately and online. While students don’t get official degrees there, they must meet rigorous academic standards; in fact, Amozegar says, many BIHE graduates have been accepted by such top schools as Yale, Harvard, UC-Berkeley, and Stanford.

Even as his wife finished her bachelor’s in architecture, Amozegar managed to get through most of his bachelor of science degree at an official public university. But eventually, the Iranian authorities caught up to him and decided he was a threat. After searching his home, they confined him in a solitary cell, where he was subjected to multiple interrogations.

“I missed one of my exams during the time I was confined, and I had an exam the day after I was released on bail,” he says. “I promised myself to not only continue learning and pursue my education, but also to help others who are facing the same discrimination.”

It was hard to find a lawyer who would take his case. When he finally found one, “it was a miracle,” he says. “I was so happy I threw a party.” The lawyer argued that Amozegar was a straight-A student with an interest in exploring different religions. He was sentenced to one year in prison, suspended for three years. He didn’t have to return to jail.

Afterward, he chose not to return to school, where he would feel like an outcast. “They thought I was dangerous!” Amozegar says. He got a job with a small oil and gas company. After nine months, with the help of his work experience and some supportive professors, he was able to make up the missing credits to get his bachelor’s degree. Still avoiding the school, he had a friend act as a proxy and do all the paperwork to secure the degree. It was yet another “miracle” and cause to celebrate with a dinner party.

THE NEXT DEGREE — AND MORE OBSTACLES

Determined to pursue his education, Amozegar applied for a master’s degree in renewable energy engineering. But in the second semester, the authorities expelled him from school for unexplained and confidential reasons.

In 2013, under the administration of a new Iranian president, Ehsan was one of a small group of students invited back to the university. But the following August, the country’s Parliament dismissed the minister of science, and Amozegar again faced expulsion. “I was exhausted by this uncertain educational path, and I was also working full-time,” he says. “But at least if they did expel me, I would have a job.” At the time, the government had its hands full, and he managed to get his MS.

Following his desire for an intellectual challenge, Amozegar applied to a Ph.D. program in energy systems, but again he was blocked. “I did all the work and the interview, and the professors accepted me,” he says. But again the authorities wouldn’t let him pass, saying that his application package was not complete—”a term used to reject students without a reason,” he says.