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Commencement Speaker: Dr. Shiva Saboori ‘80

The Cushing community was honored to welcome back and honor Dr. Shiva Saboori, a graduate of the class of 1980, as the 2017 recipient of the Cushing Academy Leadership Award and the keynote speaker for the Academy’s 142nd Commencement, which was held on Saturday, May 27. (Please scroll down for Dr. Saboori's Commencement address.)
 
Established in 2010, our leadership award honors exemplary leadership through personal and professional accomplishments and contributions to society. Shiva has achieved distinction in each of these realms, joining previous recipients including Meghan Duggan '06, Erika Lawler 05, John Cena '95, and Will Day '89.
 
A family physician and HIV specialist, Dr. Saboori has dedicated her career to outreach, education, and the treatment of HIV positive patients, including pregnant women and their children.  
 
Originally from Abadan, Iran, Shiva spent her junior and senior years at Cushing. The valedictorian of the class of 1980, she was active in modern dance, the international club, and tennis. A highlight of her extra-curricular activities was an independent study with her mentor and longtime chair of the science department, the late Dr. Arthur Johanningsmeier, helping him test water samples from the nearby rivers. Faculty who taught Shiva speak of her warmth, intelligence, kindness, and compassion as a student.  While she was fully engaged in her new life at Cushing, the Iranian revolution took place in her homeland, which had a profound impact on her personal life.
 
After Cushing, Dr. Saboori continued her education at Tufts University, where she received her bachelor's degree in biology, followed by her MD. She completed her post-graduate training at the University of California San Francisco and then launched her intensive focus on the care of HIV positive patients, at a time when much was still unknown and misunderstood about the virus. Today she is also a clinical assistant professor of family medicine at Tufts University School of Medicine. Balancing her passion for science and medicine, Shiva continues to pursue her love of writing, focusing on multi-cultural life experiences.  
 
“Shiva, we are proud of your pioneering spirit, your commitment to the medically underserved, and your many contributions to your profession and community,” said Peggy Lee, Co-Head of School. “Thank you for your leadership and example to us all.”
 
It was a pleasure as well to welcome Shiva’s brother, Dr. Mehran Saboori, Class of 1978, whom she followed to Cushing and whose weekend visit marks his first time back at Cushing since his own graduation. We are also delighted to welcome her husband, Dr. David Lee. Their daughter, a sophomore in high school, was preparing for her own final exams and was unable to join us for graduation. Several of Shiva’s former teachers were also in attendance, in tribute to her, and they enjoyed a mini reunion following the ceremony.

  • Click here for the graduation video. The presentation of the Leadership Award and Dr. Saboori’s speech begin at the 14:40 mark.
  • Below is a transcript of her address to the Class of 2017. 
 
Dear Co-Heads of School, faculty and staff, parents, and students,
 
It is an honor to return here to Cushing, 37 years after I received my own high school diploma, to be the commencement speaker for the Class of 2017. 
 
When I was first asked to give the graduation address, I spent some time thinking about what to say on such an important day.  A day that is symbolically the beginning of adulthood for the students; For the parents, it is the continuation of a gradual loving letting-go; And for the faculty, a familiar bitter-sweet farewell to the young minds they have watched grow.  It is a day that in holding open all possibilities, is both thrilling and perhaps a little scary. 
 
I knew that I would not be able to come up with what you, parents, would say to your beloved sons or daughters (or quietly to yourselves) as you watch the graduates walk towards their next phase of life.  I knew it would not be possible to speak directly to the heart of every one of you, students, each with your own hopes and wishes for the future.  What I can do is to share with you my Cushing story and explain how the 2 years I was here subsequently influenced my adult life, in the hope that you find we have some things in common even though my story begins in a different country, across the Ocean, and thousands of miles away.
 
I was 16 when I arrived at Cushing from Iran, in the fall of 1978.  I had had a modern upbringing, the daughter of two liberal-minded physicians, raised on reading books.  I remember well the large wooden book- case in our hallway, which my brother and I were encouraged to borrow from frequently.  It held books translated into Farsi, my first-language, by authors like Ernest Hemingway, Hans Christian Anderson, and Victor Hugo, as well as others by Persian writers and poets.  There were also topics on history, including WWII and the Horrors of the concentration camps. One book was filled with the-now famous photographs from the Vietnam War.  My parents liked to discuss what they had read in books and newspapers at meal times, and often involved me and my older brother, Mehran in their talk. 
                                                           
Another strong childhood influence before I arrived at Cushing was our family gatherings at my grandparents’ on the weekends.  Their house in Tehran was always filled with my aunts, uncles, and cousins.  There, we were a happy noisy company of kids and adults who only quieted a little when my grandmother called us to dinner.  We children played, and in the background the adults talked.  They laughed a lot, gave each other unwanted advice, and spoke about everything, but especially and passionately, about politics. 
 
However, when the conversation turned to the latest news about the leader of our country, the Shah of Iran, they lowered their voices into whispers or spoke in coded words, indecipherable to children. So despite all the books and discussion I had been exposed to, when I arrived at Cushing in 1978, I was politically naïve about my own country’s government and its leader.  Back then Iran was still a friend of the United States, and the Shah of Iran was still without fault, in my mind.  There was much that would change in the next 2 years, including my understanding of why I had really been sent to Cushing.
 
Originally I thought the reason I had come here was the tall American headmaster who had visited our house in Iran the year before.  Dr. Joseph Curry, for whom the academic building is named, had travelled to Iran as part of his recruiting effort to attract more international students.  Since my brother Mehran was already at Cushing Dr. Curry had stayed at our home.  I remember well how he charmed my family, not only with his healthyappetite for Persian food, but also for his openness and curiosity about a different culture. 
 
Besides Dr. Curry’s influence, my parents, probably like yours, thought that education at a New England private school was a wise investment that would prepare their children better to attend university.  As a result, a few months after Dr. Curry’s visit, I happily flew to the United States, to begin my American education.  My dream was to become a physician, something that through my 16-year-old eyes was a faraway goal still many years away.
 
I started Cushing in the beginning of my junior year filled with ordinary thoughts and feelings of any kid starting boarding school.  Besides those, there was also the challenge of taking all my classes in English.  Although I was a little nervous, I soon began to feel comfortable.  I’ll never forget the feeling of welcome on that sunny September day at the first all-school BBQ. Two teachers I had just met invited me to join them in the food line-up.   I quickly learned that here at Cushing the faculty not only remembered new students’ names, even if we had hard to pronounce foreign ones, they voluntarily chose to sit down with us at meals, and encouraged us to come to them with problems and questions. 
 
This friendly treatment mattered greatly as I was far from home and my family.  The warmth that made the teachers approachable, and reminded me of my kind aunts and uncles back home, was not unique to my experience, then, or I venture to say now. 
 
That first fall, feeling gradually at home and unaware of any brewing political troubles in Iran, I began to make friends. To my delight I discovered that my new friends were just as nice, funny, and clever as the ones I had in Iran. At Cushing, no matter what state or country we came from, we seemed to enjoy the same thing: the presence of a good friend’s company. Every morning, we walked in groups of 2s or 3s towards the Main Building where classes where held in those days. Every morning, we climbed up those squeaky steps, on our way to learn. In many ways we were just like you.  Sure we did not have Snap Chat and Instagram, and the photos left from those days were taken on film cameras. 
 
We also looked a little different in 1978; the boys had longer hair; the girls would spend some time every morning in the bathrooms of Alumni Hall and Sawyer blow drying their hair into perfect waves around their faces, hoping to look just like Farrah Faucet, a famous actress from your parents’ days; and our pant-legs were a little wider, like John Travolta in Saturday Night Fever.
 
I have actually noticed that in the last few years pant legs have gotten wider again.  If one pays attention, it seems that fashion, like history, eventually comes back and tends to repeat itself, even while people everywhere no matter the era they live in, or their clothes, remain the same; in their steady desire for; friendship, learning, and safety.
 
The first semester at Cushing with my new friends, my improving English, and the supportive teachers, I felt content and well-adjusted. The only thing that marred my happiness in the fall of 1978 was what was on the black-and-white T.V. I had to pass every evening, on my way to dinner, in the common room of Ash House.  
 
According to the news program, which was always on at that hour, something was going on in Iran.  People on the streets of Tehran chanted slogans against the King, the man I had been taught in school was a leader loved by all.  The crowds grew larger every day.  Some nights on the T.V., I saw soldiers face the demonstrators in the streets of city where my family lived.  Then things began to escalate.  Tires were set on fire, Molotov cocktails were thrown and exploded, and one horrible day, some people were shot.  I was bewildered why any of this was happening in the country of my happy childhood. 
 
You see, I did not know the things the adults had whispered about, at my grandparents during our family weekend gatherings.  I had not known about the human rights abuses, the suppression of the press, and the torture that took place under the dictatorship of the Shah of Iran.  So every night that fall, I just tried to hurry past the TV on my way to eat, and not hear any more.  I had friends to meet for dinner and later, homework to do, I’d tell myself.
 
It would be several months before I would get any explanations for these puzzling events that I was trying to ignore.  It turned out that my parents, like many parents who hide unpleasant facts to protect their children, had not told us everything. They feared if we knew the truth about the government that ruled our country, and became college students in Iran, instead of the U.S., we would join a political movement, as they once had. Then we would be in danger from the King’s feared intelligence service, the SAVAK that had infiltrated all universities and most work places. 
 
A decade before I was born, in the 1950s, my mother and my uncle had in fact been political prisoners in the Shah’s prison.  In the late 1930s, my grandfather had been jailed for his ideas at the time of the previous King, the Shah’s father.  When my parents eventually told us the real reason my brother and I were sent to Cushing Academy, I was completely taken back.  They had not just wanted us to finish our high school education here to improve our English, or get used to dorm life, before we attended an American university.  The real reason we had arrived at Cushing’s peaceful green campus, was to get us away from the oppressive political situation in our country.
 
Before I knew these details, during a time of confusion and fear Cushing came through for me.  The whole community: Dr. Curry, the faculty, and my friends showed their concern.  Every day several people asked me how my parents were doing back in Iran, and how I was doing.  This helped immensely.  Despite the fact that my homeland was falling apart, the caring adults at the school made Cushing feel like a safe place.  To stop worrying and in order to forget, I tried to focus on my studies and worked even harder in my Chemistry, Math, and English classes.
 
One of the books we read for English in my second semester at Cushing was 1984, by George Orwell. Our teacher went through the book, pointing out the use of mass brainwashing as a method to control people’s thinking. Because I still did not know anything about the dictatorial regime in which I had grown up, I did not make any connections between the brainwashed people in the book, and myself.  I was convinced that my views about the Shah’s regime, which had been shaped by my early schooling in Iran, and intentionally not contradicted by my parents because of concern for my safety, were the only version of truth. 
 
Cushing in teaching the book 1984 and showing me how to analyze things I learned in all my classes was giving me the raw material to become a questioning thinking adult.  However, I was not yet able to receive the lessons.  I was a complete patriot and in the dangerous way of all absolutists rejected anything that would alter the perfect image of my country. When the Shah of Iran was eventually driven out by the Iranian Revolution in February of 1979, only then did it occur to me that perhaps there were things I did not know.
 
Over spring break I saw my parents and they finally told me everything they had held back throughout my childhood.  For some time, it was hard for me to understand that much of what I had believed so firmly was incomplete and jaded by propaganda.  In the book 1984, the government wanted its citizens to forget when different series of facts cycled to the forefront.  My teachers at Cushing, and now my parents, wanted me to remember. 
 
What I learned that year at Cushing and gradually understood in the coming years when I became a U.S. citizen was that truth is complex.  It is not the simple one-liner on the evening news, found in one book, one newspaper article, or one tweet. 
 
Graduates, remember that no matter what country you are from, or where you end up living, as educated citizens of your country, you are responsible to consider all conflicting facts, and not just believe the simplest most recent declarations, expressed in the loudest voices.  This is not true only of politics.  It is important also in the sciences, the arts, the humanities, no matter the field you go into.  But it is especially so in a democracy.  Where one has the freedom to speak without fear of imprisonment, there is an extra responsibility to remember and question.  This is a lesson that began with my parents and all their books, but started to sink in while I was here at Cushing.
 
In the fall of my senior year, US-Iran relations suffered further. In November of 1979, to my dismay, the same black and white TV in Ash House announced that Americans at the U.S. embassy in Tehran were taken hostage.  The nightly reminder of the continuing captivity of 52 Americans, what came to be known as the “Hostage Crisis,” caused a wave of anti-Iranian feeling to spread across the United States.  Iranians, Iranian-Americans, and some who looked like themwere beaten up around the U.S.  This mass hatred of a group of people eventually reached the small town of Ashburnham.  One day, a few young men walked onto campus to confront male Iranian students at Ash House.  Fortunately, faculty members some of whom are here today chased them out.  It was clear that Cushing was going to protect us, but we were all frightened and did not know what would happen next. 
 
A few months later, in reaction to the Hostage Crisis, President Carter’s administration gave an order to cancel all legally obtained visas for Iranians entering the U.S.  Many who had left on brief vacations were stopped at airports on their return, and told they could no longer enter the country where they had been legally living, working, and studying.  For those already in the country, like me and the other 5 Iranian students in the class of 1980, the law retrospectively changed the status of our educational visas, prohibiting them from being extended. Now none of us would be able to attend university in the fall, and would probably be deported sometime during the summer after graduation.   This news came only 2 months before the day we were to receive our diplomas.  I had already been accepted to Tufts University and was devastated.
 
Once again, the Cushing community went into action. They helped 6 teenagers from now a pariah country, when they did not have to. Dr. Curry, Mr. Cone and other came up with a solution in the absence of our parents and did what they felt was right.  They arranged for a college in Switzerland to accept us, in case we had to leave the U.S., so we would still be able to continue our education. 
 
Others helped too with their sympathy and encouragement. I specifically recall how my biology teacher, Dr. Johannigsmeier with whom I had grown close because we had spent afternoons analyzing water samples from the streams around Ashburnham, a project that is still going on, allowed me to sit in his living room one afternoon and cry till I felt better.  My friends told me it would be OK.  One classmate put it simply in a message in my yearbook, “Hey Shiva,” he wrote, “It was really nice to know you.  I hope you don’t get deported!  Have a good summer!”
 
Even though it was a stressful time, the support and positive attitude at Cushing gave me hope.  Fortunately, the law regarding visas for Iranians was changed in the September that followed graduation and I was able to attend Tufts University after all. 
 
I enjoyed my years at Tufts, but had to rely on lessons I had learned at Cushing, during times of stress.  When the pressures of the Pre-med courses made me think about giving up on my dream of becoming a doctor, when I worried about the safety of my parents during the Iran-Iraq war which had started the September of my Freshman year, I sought the company of my close friends and a few faculty.  They provided me with the warmth and optimism needed to face my worries and the difficult tasks ahead.  Graduates, No matter how difficult things seem, there is nothing like the support of family, friends, and mentors to keep one going.  Remember to reach out to them. 
 
After Tufts undergraduate, I was able attended the Medical School then went on to finish my residency training in San Francisco, in the early years of the HIV epidemic.  During my training I saw for the first time that even white Americans could be discriminated against and shunned by society, or at times by their own families, for how they were in their personal lives. 
 
These days I enjoy working as an HIV doctor and family physician serving a diverse inner-city population and refugees from around of the world.  This work involves helping those who are often disenfranchised or in some way looked down on. I get immense satisfaction from this as it feels like I am giving back what was given to me—the gift of seeing another as an equal human being with the potential to achieve his/her dream, if loved and supported.  That is the gift that first my parents, and then Cushing, gave me.
 
Graduates, You each have your own Cushing-stories, your own dreams, and challenges you have overcome.  You are intelligent, well-educated, and just in the beginning of your adult lives.  Cushing has prepared you well for what comes next.  Trust in yourself.  Go for that goal which moves you from deep inside, even if right now it seems hard to achieve.  While you do this, remember to embrace your family and friends, as you will always need their love and support regardless of what you decide to do in life.  Find mentors in your old but also new teachers, find them amongst your family members; your parents, grandparents, aunts, and uncles, and find them even in the man on the street, during a simple daily interaction.
 
If you see injustice in small or large ways, speak up and act, like Cushing did for me.  Most importantly, be prepared to change your mind and your opinions as your learn and grow.  Finally even when you are done with your education, continue to learn.  Read books.  They open minds in dictatorships, but also in democracies.
 
To end, allow me express my sincerest congratulations to your parents for standing by you, to the Cushing community for educating you, and of course to all of you, Class of 2017.
 
Well done and congratulations!
 
 
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Cushing Academy

Cushing Academy exists for students and develops curious, creative, and confident learners and leaders. Founded in 1865, Cushing is a co-ed, college preparatory boarding and day school for students in grades 9-12 and PG. Our students, who come from over 30 states and 30 countries, excel in our outstanding academic, art, and athletic offerings. We welcome you to visit our community and beautiful 162-acre campus in Ashburnham, Mass., just one hour from Boston, to experience all that Cushing has to offer.

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