Professor Mahnaz Mahdavi, Economics
An Iranian who just loves to shop
Published: Thursday, September 16, 2004
Updated: Tuesday, May 31, 2011 17:05
Most often dressed in a sleek, stylish black suits and ornate, exotic jewelry, Mahnaz Mahdavi is an economist who not only likes to study money, but also loves to spend it on clothing and furniture. When visiting her in-laws in Paris or taking a trip to Boston, Mahdavi makes frequent trips to women's boutiques. But don't ask where Mahdavi purchases her jewelry. "I don't have to buy jewelry because I get a lot of jewelry presents from my mother," Mahdavi said. "In the Middle East, it's a tradition; it's cultural to give jewelry for a present."
Although she hasn't been back to her birthplace since her 1978 wedding to UMass finance professor Hossein Kazemi, a fellow Iranian, Mahdavi is still proud of her heritage. Born in the capital city of Tehran, Mahdavi studied at the National Iranian Oil Company College of Accounting before moving to Michigan for graduate school. Her brother, a nuclear engineer, and her sister, an architect, also earned degrees in the United States.
The family left Iran before the 1979 revolution and never went back to live there. Mahdavi's father, a general for the Shah of Iran, decide returning to the chaotic nation would be too dangerous.
Mahdavi, a Kerry supporter, condemns the current Iranian regime, but also doesn't like President Bush's declaration of Iran as part of an "axis of evil" along with the former Iraqi regime and North Korea.
"I don't agree with the regime in Iran," she said. "They are oppressive toward everyone, especially women. ... naming those countries ... makes it more difficult to negotiate with them."
Smith: Mahdavi's second home
Mahdavi seems to relate well with foreign students at Smith since she shares their experiences.
"I understand the challenges that international students face - missing family, friends," she said.
Mahdavi, fluent in Farsi, came to the United States with basic English skills, and she still remembers the struggles of learning a new language.
As a graduate student at the University of Michigan, Mahdavi knew she wanted to teach at a prestigious university. When she learned of an economics opening at Smith, her best friend urged her to apply.
"Being from Iran, I only knew about big schools - Harvard, Princeton, Berkley, Michigan," Mahdavi said. "I didn't know about liberal arts."
With her friend applying to Amherst, Mahdavi decided to give Smith a shot. From the moment she met the students at Smith, Mahdavi loved the school.
"My connection with students from the beginning was very close," she said. "At Smith, we have a nice group of international faculty and international students. This has become home."
Mahdavi tries to teach her 13-year-old son about his cultural roots and speaks Farsi to him at home. Her son, who now attends an all-boys school, and husband have traveled to Iran together, allowing him to meet other members of his family.
One part of Middle Eastern culture Mahdavi has not adopted is the religion of Islam. "We're irreligious," she said, adding that she tries to teach her son some kind of spirituality.
Passionate for economics
"The good thing about academics is that you work on projects that you're interested in and you get paid for it!" Mahdavi said with a laugh.
Mahdavi juggles a variety of projects and responsibilities, including researching international interest rates and stock returns and directing the Women and Financial Independence program geared toward financial education. The program has attracted a fair amount of national media attention and reporters often call Mahdavi and pepper her with questions about the gender wage gap and gender differences in attitude toward money.
"There is a wage gap," she said. "Women are getting 77 cents per dollar compared to men for similar work."
Mahdavi spent her summer preparing a national survey on the financial decisions and behavior of college students, finishing a scholarly article and preparing an upcoming book. She spent Labor Day, the last day of summer vacation, polishing a syllabus for an economics course. With all of that work, it seems like this fashion plate had little time to shop.
"I worked like mad - like there was no tomorrow!" she said with a laugh. "This will be a fun year to teach economics because of the election. Students are naturally interested in these issues and they get excited."