When Taravat Talepasand accepted a job at Portland State as a tenure track professor of art practice, she wanted to find a creative way to announce the news.
“I wanted it to be something really funny and heartwarming,” says Talepasand.
The result? An Instagram post where Talepasand recreated her father’s student ID from 1984 when he was a graduate student at PSU, complete with crossed arms, coffee cup, and cigarette in hand.
The story behind the photo shows Talepasand’s deep roots at Portland State.
Originally, Talepasand’s father, Iraj Talepasand, planned to earn a bachelor’s degree in the U.S. and return to Iran. He received a full-ride scholarship to the University of Oregon for his undergraduate degree and headed for Oregon. Talepasand’s mother and sister soon joined him. Talepasand was born in Eugene in 1979, just as the Iranian revolution upended the family’s plans to return to Iran.
“My mom was like, ‘we have two daughters, that’s not happening,’” says Talepasand. “Their whole life got flipped upside down.”
Instead, Talepasand’s father joined the graduate engineering program at PSU. He felt at home in the department, which was filled with diverse international students. Because it was in Portland, he could work while studying for his degree and Talepasand’s mother attended cosmetology school.
But it wasn’t easy. “They didn’t have much money immigrating to America, just suitcases and their kids,” Talepasand says. They lived in student housing in the Goose Hollow apartments.
“What really helped my parents in figuring out their new life in a new country and environment was Helen Gordon,” Talepasand says of Portland State’s daycare and preschool. “They had that security that I was nearby. I was taken care of. I always went home super excited. I absolutely loved my experience at Helen Gordon.”
It was at Helen Gordon where she began to paint, where she donned her first Halloween mask (she chose ET, “I really felt like an alien, but that space didn’t make you feel that way”), where she walked as part of a chain of children to the Park blocks in the rain, where she celebrated turning four.
“It felt like a second home to me. I didn’t feel uncomfortable, even though that was a really complicated time for Iranians (Iran Hostage Crisis). My parents are speaking a different language. Our apartment smelled of different herbs and spices. I looked different…” says Talepasand. “It was such an important time in my youth and in my life to assimilate, and for my parents to assimilate in American culture.”
Her time at Helen Gordon has had a lasting impact. Talepasand has even continued to stay in touch with Dede, one of her teachers at Helen Gordon.
As a child, Talepasand remembers visiting her father at one of his campus jobs in the photography department where he would share with her how to use the darkroom. That was how he was able to make his bootleg student ID.
After her father’s graduation, her family stayed in the Portland area. Her father designed and worked on electrical engineering projects across the region, including the control tower at the Portland International Airport. Her mother owned and operated hair salons as a hairdresser.
When she was in high school, Talepasand began looking through family photos. “I was reconnecting with my past, my history, my Iranianness because a lot of my artwork has to do with female empowerment and what it means to be a woman from the Middle East but also questioning what that means in the West. I look for parallels.” It was then that she discovered her father’s PSU ID.
She carried the ID with her ever since then, next to her social security card, as she went to the East Coast for college and then San Francisco for graduate school.
Years later, when Talepasand resigned from a faculty position in increasingly unaffordable San Francisco and moved back to Portland, she had no idea how things would turn out. She began to adjunct at PSU during the pandemic, and loved it (and learned she actually prefers teaching intro to painting online).
And then, a full-time faculty position opened up.
“I had given a lecture, met with students and had meetings with staff and faculty members, and the entire time it just felt familiar and comfortable and grounding,” says Talepasand. “All of these emotions and memories of my time at Helen Gordon and at PSU in the eighties came rushing back to me, and it felt so right.”
Accepting a job at PSU was especially meaningful for Talepasand. “It really feels like I have come full circle…because I spent so much of my younger life on that campus.” Her parents, now back in Iran, were ecstatic.
“My baba (father) is really proud. Happy that I’m doing what I love, and he knows how important education is,” Talepasand says. “I know everything that my parents sacrificed for me. My life could have been very different if I stayed in Iran. I’m infinitely grateful.”
Talepasand just finished her first term in her new position.
“I absolutely love it. I love my job – I love PSU,” Talepasand says. “At the end of the term, I received these wonderful cards and letters from students thanking me. I have one on my refrigerator door from a student that brings me to tears and is a good reminder of the gratitude I have for being a part of the PSU team and community. It feels so right.”
Illustration by Brett Forman; Helen Gordon photos courtesy of Taravat Talepasand