Convocation ‘20: Asal Andarzipour

An Unexpected Journey

Donna McKinnon - 08 June 2020

As a student who has traveled around the globe from Iran to America to Canada in pursuit of an education, Asal Andarzipour brings a lived experience to her research on world fairs. Studying these exhibitions was a way to explore globalization and the meeting of cultures, says Asal, who will graduate this June with a course-based Master of Arts degree in the History of Art, Design and Visual Culture.

Asal’s life would take an unexpected and tragic turn, however, with the downing of Ukraine International Airlines Flight PS752 crash in Tehran, Iran on January 8, 2020, which took the lives of 176 individuals, including members of the University of Alberta community. As president of the Iranian Students’ Association, she was called upon to act as a liaison between the university administration and the Iranian community here and abroad, including meeting with grieving family members at the airport and helping with the university’s memorial service.

While volunteering for her community helped Asal heal, It was a difficult and emotional journey that took a personal toll, impacting her ability to focus on her studies. It would take the support of her colleagues and a concerted effort on her part to navigate the trauma, but Asal persevered, successfully completing the final components of her program.

What drew you to the area of your study? 

My background was in the practice of designing products and services. While trying to solve design problems, I realized that underlying issues rooted in the past have helped create the world we live in today. During my time at the University of Alberta, I learned that I am interested in the art and design that has emerged as a result of people moving around in the world. Maybe I relate to this because I have been a migrating student for about five years so far. I found that world exhibitions are an interesting area in which I could explore the meeting of different cultures. My research title is A Shah Walks into the World’s Fair...Reflections of Persia in the Expositionary Mirror. Although it is about the late nineteenth century visits of a Persian monarch to the European fairs, it has manifestations in our current world such as orientalist approaches to countries from the Middle East. We are living in a globalizing world, and Canada in particular as a diverse country has a lot to learn from studies such as mine.

What is the most remarkable thing you learned while you were a student?

This was the time I could finally focus on studying events from the past. I learned how the world we live in today is a direct by-product of the decisions taken in the past. More importantly, this teaches us that our current actions will be subject to study in the future and that we should be aware of the world we create, which will be handed to the future residents of planet earth.

Did you face any significant challenges? 

My journey towards the University of Alberta was a challenge in itself. I was about to finish my Master of Fine Arts at Syracuse University, New York, when the US administration ordered the first travel ban. I was quick to realize that as a student from Iran, I might face travel difficulties there. That is how I chose the University of Alberta as my next destination, and the faculty members were supportive when I submitted my application in a rush.

After arriving in Edmonton, political circumstances kept developing, related to civil unrest, human rights abuses and the tension of a possible war. The downing of Flight PS752 on January 8, 2020, by the Islamic Revolutionary Guards led to the tragic loss of 13 community members from the University of Alberta. As the president of the Iranian Students’ Association I found myself in a position of responsibility for the community. The grief was complex as many of us were experiencing deep anger due to the deception of Iranian authorities regarding the reasons behind the tragedy. Meanwhile, we were organizing memorial services in a way that would raise awareness regarding what had happened. For the first few weeks of my last term I was unable to keep up with my research plans. Going to meetings with my supervisor without having much to present was not the best feeling, but now I think that keeping in touch during that time was key to my success!

In addition to my supervisor, I made sure that other staff in the department of Art & Design knew of the challenges I was facing during that time. I knew the experience of trauma needs time, and I also sought help from the resources on campus. Volunteering for the community had a healing effect for me but also took time. I shared my concerns with the graduate advisor in our department, and I learned some strategies for time management which improved my performance a lot.

How did you manage the challenges of navigating student life under COVID-19 restrictions and remote learning? 

Surprisingly, the social-distancing aspect of restrictions contributed to my studies! I was in my last term and all I needed was to be in touch with my supervisor through email and Zoom meetings. Less distraction and social events were happening, and I found the peace and focus needed to finish my program.

I missed being in the library and my office a lot. I used to watch others studying and get motivated, but now I could not have the hardworking community around me. I reconfigured my desk and study space to feel more like school and gave myself homemade coffee breaks as a reward!

What piece of advice do you wish someone had given you when you started?

Learn about your peers’ research! You can never explore enough on campus. There are many amazing topics that can inspire you just by taking a coffee break with someone you have met. In this way you have a better sense of what other researchers care about, and you can navigate yourself in a world full of ideas and possibilities.

What is next for you?

After being a student for almost eleven years, I am now seeking employment opportunities that relate to my degrees and experiences in the practice and study of art and design. In particular, I am interested in the field of exhibitions, galleries, and museums. I want to gain practical experience for a couple of years, and then go back to school for a PhD! Meanwhile I would like to explore publishing opportunities. I believe my time in the world out of academia will give me some ideas about possible doctoral research areas related to what I have been working on here at the University of Alberta. 

Read Asal’s convocation profile in the University of Alberta’s Folio: Global Conflict Never Far Away.

The Future is Arts! This story is part of a series celebrating our graduates. Please join us for a virtual convocation, Friday, June 12, at 10 a.m. MST. at Registration is not required.