TEHRAN — Valentina Simeone hails from the city of Cagliari on the Italian island of Sardinia, but has spent the past six months a world away — in Iran.
The 21-year-old became the first ever European Union exchange student to the Middle Eastern country, studying Farsi at Tehran University under the Erasmus Program, a EU student exchange program established in 1987. Though Erasmus had partnerships with other non-EU countries, such opportunities were unavailable in Iran until the recent warming of relations with the West that led up to the successful negotiations over Tehran's nuclear program.
Simeone has bright eyes and unruly long brown hair held back by a colorful hijab, the Muslim veil common in Iran. "At first it was a bit traumatic, since I spoke only a few words of Farsi and it was hard to find any English speakers," she says. "Thankfully the mother of one my old university professors lives in Tehran, and she helped me find a place in the female dorm and work through the university bureaucracy."
Along with her hijab, Simeone kept with the modest dress often expected of women in the country: Her coat reached her knees, and she never exposed her elbows. "I thought my behavior and style of dress would alienate me from other students, but that faded quickly and then everything went well," she says. "Sometimes while walking on the street women would scold me for not completely covering my hair or for wearing a cropped shirt, but when they found out I was a foreigner they would apologize."
When she had free time outside of studying for her exams, Simeone came face-to-face with other unfamiliar aspects of Iranian culture. "Iranian female students almost never speak to male classmates, but I chatted with them and never had any problems," she says.
Tehran's Faculty of Foreign Languages & Literature — Photo: Erasmus Mundus Marhaba Facebook page
She didn't go out drinking in nightclubs, which is legally prohibited in Iran though increasingly common in underground locales. Instead, she whiled away the time in the many local tea and coffee shops, but with Facebook blocked, Simeone had to find new ways to stay in touch with her friends and family. She maintained her ties to home alive by cooking pasta for her Iranian roommates, just as she sampled Iranian kebabs.
Simeone was in Tehran when the nuclear deal was approved and global sanctions were lifted, an invaluable look at a unique time in Iranian history. "Young people were very energized, and the first immediate effect you could see was a surge in tourist arriving," she says. "They want to get to know the West and drive Iran's future development."
In addition to improving her grasp of Farsi, Simeone's stay allowed her to decide on the topic of her dissertation: Iranian-Italian relations. "My experience helped me reflect on many things, especially the unwavering faith of the students I met in Tehran," she says. "It's not a burden, it's a gift that shines through in all their actions, and this led me to reexamine my faith and deepen my understanding of my own identity."
After she graduates, Simeone plans on entering the Italian foreign service. "When I told locals I was Italian, they were fascinated. They know a lot more about Italy than we know about their country," she says. Perhaps she will take her singular experience as Iran's first European exchange student to the front lines of Iranian-European diplomacy, and aid the ancient country's burgeoning reintegration with the wider world.