Fred and Latifeh Hagigi have just come back from a trip to Kenya. As a professor of public health at UCLA’s Anderson School of Management, Fred, the adventurer with a self-confessed short attention span, has been working in Nairobi for 10 years and is ecstatic that his wife finally gave in and joined him on this particular trip, which wasn’t all work and no play – they even made time to go on a safari together. ‘She was worried I was going to feed her to the lions, but we had a great time,’ Fred says between chuckles.
The couple, however, are rarely that far apart. Latifeh is also a UCLA lecturer, teaching Persian language and literature at the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Cultures. Both husband and wife are highly successful in their own right, each having received a Distinguished Teaching Award, which hang on the same wall at the university’s Faculty Center.
Together the Hagigis work at a higher level, and not just academically, often leaning on each other for strength and trust in the often turbulent and challenging world of teaching.
After getting married, the Hagigis originally planned to come to the US as students, complete their education and go back home to start their lives in Tehran, where they were both born. But the couple, like many Iranians, unintentionally became part of the diaspora, first making a new home in Utah, before finally settling in Los Angeles.
Your families have a very long history together, going back generations. Latifeh, your grandfather founded a hospital in Tehran, where Fred’s father ended up becoming chief of staff. How did you end up meeting each other and getting married?
Latifeh: We are both from Baha’i families, so we met at a Baha’i summer camp. We were in the same group of friends and gradually became interested in each other. When Fred finished high school he decided to go to the US. One year later he came back and we got married. Some others in our group got married too and all of them have ended up in Los Angeles. We still get together and see each other, which is really lovely.
Fred: I proposed to her when I was 16 – and she was three years older. It was quite controversial because at that time in Iran, men were about 7 or 8 years older than women. Men would not marry at such a young age. We’ve been friends for 45 years and married for 40 – marrying her was the luckiest break in my life.
You’ve been living in California since the ‘80s. The Iranian community in Los Angeles is so significant that it’s nicknamed Tehrangeles. But Fred, you say that Latifeh is way more Iranian than you are.
Fred: She is… her brain still processes in Persian, my brain doesn’t process in Persian. We had this issue with my son – she wanted to talk to him in Persian. It was either Pers-English or English. She’s much more connected to the community, because it’s her field. She loves the culture, she knows her stuff. As I’ve been getting older, I’ve been appreciating it more, loving what she loves.
You’re in different departments – Fred you’re in public health and Latifeh you’re in Persian studies – but what’s it like working together at UCLA?
Latifeh: It has a lot of advantages. We have a lot of things in common – we are both in academia. We have been very supportive of each other and we’ve grown up together since we were teenagers. So although our fields are different, I think that has been very nice and instrumental for us.
Each of you can understand the pressure of what the other is going through.
Latifeh: Exactly. And we know how the politics work at universities, so we consult each other.
Fred: Yes, it’s a very fascinating world because you have shared governance – the politics at a university are worse than any country politics. She’s a much better teacher, she cares a lot more than I do, as far as the students are concerned. Teaching undergraduates is something I will not do. I only teach graduate professionals – these are people who already have advanced degrees, so I’m much more selfish when it comes to this. I enjoy it. I feel like I’m contributing to other people’s lives, so I feel good about what I’m doing, but I’m not willing to make the kind of sacrifice that she does. She’s doing real teaching, whereas I tell my students in class that I’m not going to teach them right from day one, I’m going to facilitate their learning and will learn along with them. So my job is much easier than what Latifeh does.
Latifeh, your students often comment on how you become like a mother figure to them. Do you feel responsible for instilling the love of Iranian language and heritage in your students?
Latifeh: Basically, my intention is to create their original identity, so that they find the rich culture their parents come from and a love and passion for their homeland, so I include a lot of history and culture in my classes. It’s very fulfilling. They really become like my own children. I care for them – telling them that it’s cold, why don’t they have a sweater or jacket. Or they’ll tell me, ‘I have headache’ and I’ll say ‘okay, I’ll bring you some hot tea.’ So we become like a family and they leave UCLA with this memory.
Fred, you mentioned before how easily you can become restless and bored. You obviously like doing things that don’t confine you to an office space?
Fred: Yes. As an example, I was in the school of public health for about 15 years but at the same time I also had projects in the school of medicine, and the school of management. I even helped colleagues at USC. So although four of my degrees are from UCLA, I look at myself like a free agent. The projects I’m doing right now in Kenya is with the Wharton School of Management at the University of Pennsylvania and in Saudi Arabia it’s with the University of or North Carolina. There are not too many people like me in healthcare finance that are willing to do this for cheap. My problem actually is that I have a tough time saying no.
This article can be found in Brownbook’s November/December 2014 Issue.
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