From West Point to Afghanistan, to UCI and a PhD! What’s next? Amir Bagherpour’s path to success
By Tara Kangarlou, PAAIA NexGen Editor
A significant number of young Iranian Americans, around or below the age of 30, are either American born or moved to the United States at a very young age. In this space we would like to tell their stories, accomplishments, challenges and contributions, profiling the individuals who shape the most vibrant dynamic of our community.
When it comes to professional and career choices, the honorable option of attending law school, medical school, or dental school serve as a top choice for not only the kids but also their parents. MIT, Harvard, Stanford and UCLA are all full of brilliant Iranian Americans who are huge assets to our community at large; but the US army, West Point, and then a PhD? Many would go to England or Spain to study abroad, but a career in Foreign Service?
Meet a PAAIA NexGEN founding member, Amir Bagherpour, a 29-year-old Iranian American who defying all the stereotypes has given us a new standard that re-defines success, enthusiasm and altruism. I sat down with him in Orange County and invited him to a Q&A session.
We have heard great things about your past, your military experiences in Afghanistan and West Point Academy in New York, your seriousness in attaining your MBA, PhD and Doctoral studies in Public Policy and International Relations, and even heard more amazing plans about your future career paths; but let’s begin to talk more about your personal background and experience as an Iranian living and growing up in the US.
Where were you born?
I was born in Tehran, Iran. I immigrated to the United States in 1986 with my family at the age of 5.
Did you feel out of place growing up here?
I never felt like a foreigner growing up in the United States because I immigrated here at such a young age. My family first lived in Los Angeles and later settled in Irvine, California. Both communities consisted of a substantial number of Iranians so the culture, language, and sense of belonging was never an issue. The first time I really felt like an immigrant was when I enlisted in the Army at 18 years of age.
And why is that?
I felt like this for the first time because there are not many Iranian Americans in the military and I could not share my culture with many people. But after a short time I felt like everyone else. In fact, I realized that the military is a microcosm of American society with all the good and bad things that may sometimes accompany it.
How do you define your Iranian identity among the younger generation of Iranians growing up in America?
Iranians place a lot of value on hard work and education. Having never returned to Iran, I can only tell you of my experience with young Iranians who have recently arrived in the U.S. I have observed their strong work ethic and drive to succeed. Having studied the situation in Iran, I can only imagine the obstacles young Iranians face in their native country. High unemployment, inflationary pressures, stagnant wages, and social immobility are enormous barriers for young Iranians seeking better lives. The stifling of human potential is almost unimaginable. But Iranians generally have a spirit that is stronger than many of the obstacles imposed on them. In spite of all these challenges we see in Iran, I have great hope and optimism for the future.
How did you use your opportunities in the United States to grow and become who you are today? How could it have been different?
I see opportunities as a way of showing your merit. The reality is that there is a lot of luck involved in becoming successful. But the harder I work, the luckier I become. In the US, I have been very fortunate to attend great universities and work in institutions that rewarded people based on merit. This is something that people often take for granted. From a young age, I always sought to serve unselfishly, whether in the military, business, academia, or the Iranian community. The defining opportunities in my life have been attending West Point and serving in the military. Such great opportunities obviously had their costs.
As an Iranian American, how did your Persian background affect or play a role in choices you made or career paths you have chosen? West Point, US army, these are not typical options that an Iranian youth would choose. Tell me more about this.
As Iranian Americans, we are a minority among minorities. I always try to act in ways to represent our community with honor and dignity.
Joining the Army and going to school may seem to be two very separate paths, and you surpassed both areas with great results; how did you manage both? How did you become interested in both? What kept you motivated?
I don’t think these paths are separate at all. Education and intellectual curiosity are valued in both business and the military. I became interested in the military and West Point because they are institutions that focus on leadership and ethical decision-making. Some people are motivated by material gain or tangible things; as a young person, I am motivated by ideas. I went on to receive my MBA from UC Irvine and am now a PhD fellow at Claremont Graduate University because I want to help decision-makers obtain solutions to solving some of the most pressing issues facing the world. I managed my academic and military duties by planning for the worst and hoping for the best.
What prompted you to enlist in the army? What was it that you gained, in becoming the man you are today?
Every one of my experiences adds a little to who I am. What I enjoyed most about the Army was the camaraderie. The military gave me a certain perspective on life and the world. It gave me a perspective on how people outside the US see America. This perspective has given me a fundamental advantage in approaching problems in academia and applying it to the real world.
As an Iranian American, how do you see yourself giving back to the community?
Of course my goal is to make future generations of Iranian Americans better than the prior ones. I think PAAIA is a great instrument and tool for such a lofty goal. As a PAAIA volunteer, I am currently helping implement our membership drive strategy so that Iranian Americans can have a stronger voice in American society. I am involved in several other organizations as well.
Who is your role model or hero? Or simply a person who you look up to in the Iranian American Community?
Wow. There are so many. My personal role model is Dr. Khosrow Bakhtar. This gentleman is a highly achieved scientist who has dedicated his entire life in service of others. I take up all my personal and professional pursuits by his example.
What is that one thing that you want the next generation of Iranian American kids to know and learn from your extremely diverse experiences?
I would tell them to never compromise your values, approach life with the big picture in mind, and roll with the punches.
Amir, it is your altruistic, selfless and motivated personality that I admire the most. I believe that with such an attitude not only will you succeed personally, but you will influence and help your community at large. It is brilliant and talented individuals like you who are the future Dr. Bakhtars. Thank you for sharing your experiences with me; I know they will serve as sparkles of hope, affirmation and enthusiasm for the up and coming younger generation of Iranians living in the United States.