“Anything is possible; you just don’t know what you will learn here and what it’s going to open in the road for you,” said Iranian/American speaker and activist Neda Sarmast at Mars Hill College August 30.
As keynote speaker for the Opening Convocation of the fall, 2011 semester, Sarmast reminded Mars Hill College students that as Americans, they have the freedom to make choices: a freedom that is not available in much of the world.
“One of the most important experiences that you’re entering into right now is that from now on, you’re now being invited to think independently. You’re now making important choices, life decisions, representing for yourself what is important for you and your future,” she said. “The beauty of the democracy that you’re living in right now in this country is the gift to be able to think and choose freely for yourself, as youth. It’s a gift that many others do not have the freedom to experience and are dreaming to have, this chance that you have right now.”
Sarmast is the coproducer of Nobody’s Enemy, a 2008 documentary about the youth culture of Iran. The documentary was one of two works chosen by MHC’s Summer Reading program to encourage campus-wide, provocative conversation about a different culture. Students will be discussing the documentary in addition to Persepolis, a memoir about growing up in Iran by Marjane Satrapi.
Sarmast was born in Iran, moved to the US at the age of nine, and has traveled back and forth ever since. She was an eyewitness to the Iran-Iraq war and her memories still haunt her as she lost her best friend to an Iraqi aerial raid.
Feeling that Iranians and Muslims have been depicted unfairly in US media, Sarmast left a career in music management, marketing and public relations, to work toward greater understanding. She now uses her knowledge of music and film to promote tolerance and unity among Eastern and Western cultures.
Sarmast told the group at Mars Hill on Tuesday that she felt her background put her in a unique position to build bridges between the Middle East and America.
“I’m an Iranian and I’m an American and I understand both sides of the conversation. It was very important for me to show that whatever you see in news, whatever goes on in the world of politics, at end of the day, true change and true possibilities occur for people just like you and me,” she said.
She encouraged Mars Hill students to “be a sponge,” to listen to those with different viewpoints, from different cultures, and then to be a positive “cultural ambassador,” for their families, their college, and their faith.
“You don’t have to agree with everything that you see and hear, but it’s important to listen, and then to choose freely for yourself,” she said.
At the convocation, Sarmast addressed the largest entering class of Mars Hill College students in 30 years.
Including new freshmen and transfers, the Mars Hill College 2011 incoming class includes 483 students, the largest entering class in 30 years. Sixty-four percent of those students are from North Carolina, thirty-five percent are from other states and the remaining one percent come from other countries, including Australia, Canada, Chile, United Kingdom, and Zimbabwe. Eleven percent of MHC’s incoming students are from Madison, Buncombe, or Yancey counties. Sixty percent are men, while forty percent are women. Twenty-six percent are Baptists and thirty-two percent are first-generation college students.
As of the first day of class, total enrollment at Mars Hill College was 11% higher than the previous year, with a total of 1,073 students. Administrators credit the increase in enrollment to the hard work of admissions staff, in addition to a new, more streamlined financial aid process which makes more institutional funds available for scholarships.
Mars Hill College is a private, liberal arts institution offering over 30 baccalaureate degrees and one graduate degree in elementary education. Founded in 1856 by Baptist families of the region, the campus is located just 20 minutes north of Asheville in the mountains of western North Carolina.www.mhc.edu 1-866-MHC-4-YOU.