I began my graduate school education in the Jackson School’s Middle East Studies MA program in 2015 at the University of Washington (UW). As a first-generation and working-class student, I did not think I had a fighting chance to attend graduate school. Once I achieved my dream of matriculating at such a prestigious university, I seized the opportunity to explore the rich and diverse intellectual communities of UW. From 2015-2016, I was selected for the Gorton Global Leaders program at the National Bureau of Asian Research’s Slade Policy Center. During the fellowship, I engaged in roundtables on international relations and U.S. foreign policy with various political leaders across the US. My cohort organized a policy-related panel on the topic of Seattle infrastructural integrity in the event of an earthquake. As a result, I gained knowledge on national security, innovation, and technology in the policy-making sector. The experience afforded me collaborative skills to better mentor other students in similar fields at the UW.
After the MA, I enrolled in the Near and Middle Eastern Studies (NMES) PhD program in 2017. While I am grateful for the academic skills that I have gained during the MA, I am especially thankful for the practical experiences I have acquired throughout my doctoral studies. I volunteer for peer-to-peer mentorship, in addition to leading study groups and writing workshops so that we not only survive but thrive throughout our graduate school experience. Mentor leadership has been a major thread throughout my experience because it enriches my life at the UW, giving me opportunities to help other low-income and first-generation students overcome disparities.
In addition to graduate research and study, I have held a UW library student staff position for nearly four years in Central Circulation. With my low-income background, the fear of not having enough money for rent between 2015-2018 was draining for my husband, a deli worker, and me. Central Circulation provided the supplementary income to ease that burden, but also served as a space to find self-worth. More importantly, I became part of an amazing community of UW library scholars and students. I have contributed to cultivating a welcoming community of support among co-workers, especially for those who are just starting out as undergraduates at the UW.
By 2020, I secured a Simpson Center Digital Humanities Fellowship to lead a collaborative research team with Solmaz Shakerifard (PhD Candidate, NMES), and Kayla van Kooten (BA in International Studies and NELC) called “Digital Iran: Anticolonial and Imperial Narratives of Iran in Video Games.” DI investigated ways in which video games made about Iran either produced empathy for the player or reinforced orientalist and racist paradigms. During my tenure as project leader, I heavily emphasized critical consciousness and pedagogy as part of our research experience. Our project centered on video games about Iran specifically because of the continued rise of Islamophobia and spread of misinformation about Iran and Iranians in the US.
Simultaneously, I trained and mentored Kayla on writing and producing research ideas for her PhD and fellowship applications from 2020-2021. We also collaborated on her first research article in autumn 2021, which is currently under review. Like myself, Kayla is a working-class and low-income student. She applied to UW several times before matriculating in 2017. Her financial and academic struggles reminded me of how I received very little guidance prior to attending graduate school. Through multiple writing and editing sessions, I provided a “road map” to navigate the difficult terrain of applying to graduate school programs and competitive funding. Kayla has now been successful in receiving a Fulbright English Teaching Assistant Award in the Diversity Program for 2021-2022 and acceptance to UC-Berkeley’s German Studies PhD program with a competitive funding package.
In addition to helping Kayla, I provided mentor services through live streaming on the DI project’s Twitch channel in 2020. The gamer platform afforded us the opportunity to connect with other UW students about the DI research on Iranian video games. As project leader, I encouraged DI viewers to ask questions and gave advice on their CVs and resumes for the academic and industry job markets. I also advocated for the LGBTQIA+ community, and even provided insights when asked about how to build their own Twitch channel. Together, we discussed the necessary tools and common challenges of building a Twitch channel, especially with widespread trolling and harassment on the platform. In sustaining a community of resistance on the DI channel, I was a finalist for the Diversity & Inclusion in Esports Category for the*gameHERs Awards. This specific category is aimed at women content creators and streamers who passionately advocate for the advancement of women and the LGBTQIA+ community.
From 2020 on, I have been rigorously researching and writing my dissertation. Concurrently, I continue to mentor Kayla, peer mentor my NMES colleague Vince Calvetti, and assist Minju Kang, a former Middle East Studies MA student, with her cover letter applications for work in South Korea. I am also a mentor leader for the Gorton Policy Center, where I will work with other first-generation students and future policy leaders during 2022. Working with these individuals inspires me because, like them, I had a difficult time navigating higher education feeling like a complete outsider.
My dissertation research focuses on empathy and the desire to belong among Iranian and Iranian American gamers. I engage in digital platforms like Twitch and other social media to connect and build community, compassion, tolerance, and respect alongside my research participants. For women gamers, I have given opportunity and a space to vent the frustration and anger they feel when facing normalized forms of repression and harassment in male-dominated online spaces. I envision my future work will continue with these gamers to improve online platform policies and to create intersectional and culturally competent design across gaming platforms.
As a proud leader, I have worked with colleagues, undergraduates, and broader communities to empower others and enhance our lives as mentor leaders. Whatever role I assume after graduate school, whether a tenure-track professor or private sector employee in technology and/or esports, I will remain committed to mentorship.