Roxana Sheikh, PAR ’13, has never been one to take the easy way out. Working her way through college, while her family at home in Iran lost everything in the revolution, cemented her commitment to the transformative power of education.
It’s a value that her son, Fordham biology major Kamron Sharif, said he is grateful she has instilled in him.
“My mom has really made me realize how much of a priority education is over everything,” Sharif said. “There may be a lot of things going on that I may momentarily think are more important, but I need to study.”
“That’s my most important commitment,” he said.
Sheikh’s passion for education runs in the family and was hard-won through a terrifying series of events her family walked through during the Iranian revolution of the late 1970s.
Sheikh’s parents were both educated in America and returned to Iran to pursue their careers. Her father, Shoja Sheikh, an orthopedic surgeon, was the Minister of Health and Social Welfare under the Shah. Her mother, Azar Aryanpour, was a teacher.
“My mother was always the biggest advocate for our education,” Sheikh said.
Sheikh was educated in the American school in Tehran. When it became time to consider higher education, she moved to the United States to pursue her bachelor’s degree at American University. She had no idea how dramatically her life would change when she left Iran.
As the revolution played out back home, Sheikh’s family faced increasing danger in the changing political environment. In 1978, her father was arrested in the midst of political fallout. He remained in prison for five years.
“We couldn’t reach my family and had no idea what was going on,” she said of the tense days after her father’s arrest. “Those were hard days.”
Though her family lost their home, financial resources, and every sense of stability imaginable, their commitment to education remained firm. Sheikh’s mother moved to America to be with her children while her husband was imprisoned.
The family lived in the Washington, D.C., area, Sheikh working two jobs while attending graduate school to pay for her own and her brothers’ education and housing.
“I don’t know where that strength came from, but I found it,” she said.
In the midst of her trials, Sheikh received her bachelor’s degree and a master’s degree in learning disabilities, both from American University. She also completed the coursework for a Ph.D. in education administration at Rutgers. She taught for many years before her children were born, working extensively in Montessori schools.
Today, Sheikh’s strength in the midst of a trial continues to be called into action. In 2008, she was diagnosed with stage four colon cancer. As she continues her treatments while her own three children are in college, she said she continually reinforces the importance of perseverance, even in the toughest times.
“It’s been hard for my children to see me sick, but I keep telling them that education is not a choice,” she said.
Sheikh’s son Kamron transferred to Fordham in his second year of college. He is studying biology and plans to attend medical school after graduation.
Since coming to Fordham, he said he has had opportunities to shadow physicians at nearby hospitals and engage in an undergraduate research project about the correlation of mixed martial arts injuries with stricter guidelines governing the sport.
Kamron, whose father died of cancer 10 years ago, said his mother has been supportive of him and of Fordham throughout his journey, even while she battles cancer.
“Every decision I’ve ever made, I’ve run by her,” he said. “She’s very supportive and makes sure I make the right decision.”
“I only have one parent. She’s got a big job, and she does it pretty well.”
Sheikh said that she has seen Kamron “come alive” at Fordham. While she certainly appreciates the fact that he is near enough for them to see each other often, she said she’s also thrilled that he has taken advantage of so many educational and extracurricular opportunities.
“He’s found his niche. Fordham is really Kamron’s school,” Sheikh said. “It was meant for him.”
Sheikh’s advocacy and support of education extends beyond her own career as an educator and role as a parent. As her children grew, she began working part-time for her brother’s commercial construction company as an office manager and adviser.
There, she has consistently encouraged employees, particularly women, to pursue education and professional advancement opportunities.
“I tell all the girls, ‘You can do better,'” she said. “I am very pro-feminist.”
Sheikh’s feminism may surprise many, given the political state of her homeland Iran. But Sheikh said she is always impressed by the strength of the people of her home country.
“The government can be terrible, but the people are not,” Sheikh said of Iran. “Women are amazing there. They are a very strong force.”
As she reflects on the extraordinary life she has led and the challenges she has—and continues to—overcome, Sheikh said she hopes to impart that spirit of perseverance to her children as they go throughout their lives.
“Everyone will have dark days, but you have to pick yourself up,” she said. “There are going to be dark days, but in the morning, I say, ‘I’m not giving up.'”
by Jennifer Spencer