Rose Jackson will never forget the moment she heard Farsi spoken for the first time in more than six years. She was a sophomore at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, taking her first Farsi class in the hopes of reclaiming a part of her Iranian identity that she had lost.
“I felt like I was coming back home,” she says. “I think in English, but the first language I ever spoke was Farsi, so it feels like I’m walking back into that Persian identity.”
Born in Iran, Jackson came to the United States with her mother and sister in 2002, when she was 5 years old. There, they joined her father, who had left Iran several years earlier to pursue better economic opportunities.
But at the age of 13, Jackson suddenly found herself cut off from her Iranian heritage. That’s when she was adopted by a family from North Carolina with no prior ties to the Persian community, who raised her in a kind and loving home, but one that was very different from the traditional Persian home that she had known her whole life. “I almost became orphaned from that Persian heritage,” she says. “When I think about the stories my grandma knows, or what my aunt has learned in Iran – now I may never get a chance to hear those (stories).”
Still, Jackson lived happily for the next several years with her new family, celebrating holidays like Easter and Christmas instead of Nowruz, the Persian New Year.
In 2015, Jackson left her home in Charlotte to begin a new journey as an undergraduate student at Carolina. It wasn’t until her sophomore year, though, that she began delving deeper into her Iranian heritage. “I always wanted to take Farsi again because I missed the culture, and I knew that if I didn’t do it in college, I would probably not get the chance again,” she says. “Taking Farsi was probably one of the most significant events in my college career, because it reconnected me and reminded me that I was Persian.”
Through her Farsi classes, Jackson began reestablishing a Persian network. She became friends with Persian students whose families helped her connect with some of the social aspects of Persian culture. She decided to minor in Persian Studies, and immersed herself in Persian books, music and history. “Learning the history makes me feel connected to the greater heritage,” she says. “It’s always a source of strength and inspiration for me.”
Jackson’s adoptive parents have been highly supportive of her efforts to reconnect with her heritage. Her mother, a retired nurse, and her father, a teacher, are excited to tell Jackson when they encounter someone from Iran in their work. “They are always eager to learn more about Persian culture,” Jackson says. “They tried to cook Persian food, Tahdig, a few times, but it’s harder than it looks.”
Rediscovering her Persian identity has had a profound impact on Jackson’s plans for the future. As a peace, war, and defense major with a concentration in international security, her long-term goal is to be involved in government and public policy, particularly Iranian resistance. She hopes to help bring about change in Iran to reflect what the people want. “I think every Iranian acknowledges that, domestically, there’s a lot of work to be done,” she says.
Jackson is also a member of the Persian Cultural Society, an organization at UNC that hosts events that keep Persian-Americans throughout the Triangle connected. Whenever the society hosts an event, there are always plenty of people pitching in to help out, whether they’re donating time, money or resources. “It’s a very strong, close-knit community,” Jackson says. “It’s one of the best parts of being at UNC, just having access to all these people who want to celebrate Persian culture.”
For Jackson, the organization is a way to stay involved with other Persian students and members of the community, as well as Persian literature, music, dance and history. Maintaining traditions that are rich and diverse is key to preserving a heritage that Jackson is proud to call hers.
“Being Iranian isn’t all there is to me, but I think it’s pretty integral,” she says. “This history was built over the course of thousands of years, over the course of millions of people, so I think it’s our individual responsibilities to carry the story on to another generation.”
Learn more about the Persian community and Jackson’s experience by viewing the exhibition, Reminders of Home: Persian Art Connecting Homeland and Diaspora, currently on display in the FedEx Global Education Center at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill through December 8, 2018. The opening reception, Folk Music of Iran, will take place at 6:30 p.m. on September 21 in the Nelson Mandela Auditorium at the FedEx Global Education Center.