Students recall meeting with Iranian leader
Westminster, UVU, SUU students attend U.N. event in New York
Thursday, Oct. 22, 2009 11:25 p.m. MDT
By Wendy Leonard
He was a savvy, calculating politician and very charismatic.
"He knew how to make me feel comfortable despite having tension in the room," Cooper Henderson, a Westminster College student, said about newly re-elected Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Henderson was one of about 25 students from Westminster, Southern Utah University and Utah Valley University who had the opportunity to meet with the world leader and members of the Iranian Parliament while in New York City for United Nations meetings last month.
"I struggle to really put words on it. It was surreal, it was bizarre," he said Thursday during a panel discussion recounting the event. "I walked away having a very positive feeling about him, which is completely irrational given what I've learned about him. I came away conflicted and completely flustered."
Many of the students came away conflicted and felt somewhat censored after asking questions about heated issues such as humanrights, the Holocaust, Afghan refugees and whether the contested diplomat would step down if he knew his leadership was hurting his people more than it was helping.
"He quickly said 'of course,' and when I asked at what point, he thought about it and said 'I will know,' " said Blanca Ramirez, a Westminster business student who spent time one-on-one with Ahmadinejad. Immediately following his answer, Ramirez was whisked away by security, who told her the people of Iran love him too much to let that ever happen.
The students noticed all too well how Ahmadinejad "stayed on his talking points, right on message the whole time," said Westminster student Brandon Barclay. "It was such a contrast between how he is portrayed as tolerant, open and transparent."
But the experience was one of academic exchange as the students chalked the five-day experience up to learning about interreligious diplomacy, international culture and social responsibility.
"This was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity," said Michael Minch, director of UVU's Peace and Justice Studies Program. "Not only to meet with heads of state, but to engage with scholars of this caliber who have intimate knowledge of Iran."
On the way to meet with the president, protesters in New York begged them not to, but the group's curiosity kept them steadfast. Although they were told not to take pictures or record the meeting, unlike members of the Iranian media who were also present, they will remember the experience and use it to inform others.
"People around the world need the help of our voices," Ramirez said, adding that she knew not much would change by way of Iran's politics because of their meeting, but "we learned."