Pardis Mahdavi, the University of La Verne’s 19th president, and the first Persian-American woman to be president of a four-year university in the United States, owns her narrative inside of her office in Founders Hall. / photo by Kim Toth

Pardis Mahdavi, the University of La Verne’s 19th president, and the first Persian-American woman to be president of a four-year university in the United States, owns her narrative inside of her office in Founders Hall. / photo by Kim Toth

by Rebecca Keeler
photography by Kim Toth and Amanda Torres

If you ask Pardis Mahdavi what she likes to do best, she will paint a picture with words describing riding her horse named Caspian in a snowy field in Montana, but, then with a slight smile, she will add that her new passion is serving as the 19th president of the University of La Verne. As a highly accomplished higher education leader, academic, author and activist, Mahdavi has been able to weave her life around each endeavor and achieve one of her highest goals as president. “One of the major keys to success in life is to own your narrative and always remain in the present,” she says.

She graduated from Columbia University with a Ph.D. in philosophy, plus masters’ degrees in sociomedical sciences, anthropology and international affairs. She earned her bachelor’s degree in diplomacy and international affairs from Occidental College. Before joining the University of La Verne, she most recently served as provost and executive vice president at the University of Montana, a renowned public research university in Missoula. Mahdavi formerly served in leadership roles at Pomona College from 2006 to 2017, where she held the positions of professor and chair of anthropology, director of the Pacific Basin Institute and dean of women. In 2019, she led as the Josef Korbel School of International Studies’ acting dean at the University of Denver before joining Arizona State University’s School of Social Transformation as a professor and dean of social sciences.

Having worked in higher education for more than 20 years, her professional life has been devoted to improving educational systems, institutions and opportunities for students while keeping in mind democracy, diversity and service. “Pardis doesn’t move furniture, she moves mountains,” says Elizabeth Chin, editor-in-chief of American Anthropologist. Mahdavi has been praised by coworkers and business titans as an inclusive, visionary and capable leader. She has a proven track record of success in forging connections, strategizing, finding fresh resources and increasing organizational effectiveness.

Mahdavi’s approach to higher education is greatly influenced by her own experience as an Iranian-American woman growing up in the United States. During the peak of the Iranian revolution in the late 1970s, she encountered a terrifying situation as a child that would ultimately shape her into the strong leader and activist that she is today. While living in Minnesota, she encountered a sign on the door of her family home which read, “Burn this house; terrorists live here.” After finding that disturbing message, Mahdavi and her family packed up their things and moved to Southern California. During the move, her father Mahmood conveyed to her: “People are going to try to take everything from you—they can take your home, they can take your belongings, they can even take your country—but the one thing no one can ever take from you is your education. They can never take your mind.” From that day forward, the words of her father were permanently engrained in her mind, and Mahdavi made it her purpose in life to prove to others that education upholds democracy, and a bridge between spaces is created with education.

Mahdavi’s training in anthropology, which taught her to be reflective about intricate power dynamics, was another key component that directed her toward a career in higher education. She has concentrated her academic career on feminism, public health, human rights, human trafficking, migration and sexuality. She has written numerous journal and news articles in addition to seven books: “Book of Queens: The True Story of the Middle Eastern Horsewoman Who Fought the War on Terror,” “Hyphen,” “Crossing the Gulf: Love and Family in Migrant Lives,” “Migrant Encounters: Intimate Labor, the State, and Mobility Across Asia,” “From Trafficking to Terror: Constructing a Global Social Problem,” “Gridlock: Labor, Migration, and Human Trafficking in Dubai” and “Passionate Uprisings: Iran’s Sexual Revolution.” Asked which book people should read first, Mahdavi suggests, “Hyphen,” where, through stories of herself and select individuals, she considers how to “navigate, articulate and empower new identities.” As a hyphenated Iranian-American woman herself, Mahdavi weaves in her own experiences struggling to find a sense of self, amidst feelings of betwixt and between.

Along with being a highly accomplished author, Mahdavi has held fellowships with the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, the American Council on Learned Societies, the Social Sciences Research Council and Google Ideas. She has provided consulting services to a variety of institutions, including the United Nations, Google Inc., and the American government. In 2020, Mahdavi established the J.E.D.I Academy with the goal of assisting businesses and organizations in their efforts to promote diversity, equity and inclusion. “Pardis’ accomplishments are always accomplishments for the community,” says Mariko Silver, president and CEO of the Henry Luce Foundation. She is a strategic pioneer with a researcher mindset and has a firm belief in empowering individuals to own their narrative, says Silver.

While being president of a higher education institution such as ULV comes with many responsibilities, the most rewarding part of being president for Mahdavi is working with students, and the challenging part being that there simply just is not enough time in the day to accomplish everything. Mahdavi wants students to know that they are the reason she is at ULV. “The best part of my day is when I get to interact with students and help them accomplish what they came here to achieve,” she says. Mahdavi’s advice for students is for them to always stay curious and let their voices be heard. “Be free to fail. This is a good time to pick yourself up, and it is OK to fall,” she says.

Outside of work, Mahdavi can usually be found going on adventures such as rock climbing in Joshua Tree National Park with her three children, daughter Tara, 13, and two sons Shayan, 10, and Raami, 8, or riding her horse Caspian, kept at a local stable. “My children and horses are my greatest teachers,” says Mahdavi.

She has always held a special place in her heart for horses, and it was not until her early 20s in the year 2000, when Mahdavi started riding horses while doing field work in Iran. The blood of generations of horsewomen warrior’s courses through the veins of Mahdavi and her children. “This is the legacy we inherited, and that we get to pass on to the next generation. It isn’t just trauma we carry, but incredible strength as well,” she says. One of the biggest things she had to sacrifice for her career was coming to Southern California and being away from home in Iran. She credits her father Mahmood, mother Fereshteh, brothers Paymohn and Paasha, and her children as being her greatest support system.

Mahdavi delivers her inaugural address at the University of La Verne Athletic Pavilion, Oct. 13, 2023. / photo by Amanda Torres

Mahdavi delivers her inaugural address at the University of La Verne Athletic Pavilion, Oct. 13, 2023. / photo by Amanda Torres

As she embarks on her new journey as president, Mahdavi is most looking forward to getting to know the students, faculty, staff and alumni and strives to give everyone a sense of belonging on campus. She plans on honoring the strength, history and values of ULV, while weaving all of those into a bold and innovative future. Mahdavi wants all current and future students to know that education is one of the greatest gifts in life. “ULV is a place that will change your life and communities. Know that we are always holding a space for you, and we want you to feel safe to explore yourselves and your mission in life.”

Throughout her time at ULV, she wants to honor her homeland and to give lessons to those who live in the in-between like herself. “Living in a future that others define can be quite overwhelming. Being still in the present can allow us all to take in the majesty of God and discover our true selves,” she says. To Mahdavi, being present in the space between is what matters to her the most, as she has had moments in the past of being consumed by imposter syndrome, a feeling of not belonging. “While in Iran, I was always known as too American, and while in America, I was always too Iranian,” she says. In order to cope with the imposter syndrome, she has held on to the core values of simply living in the present and not worrying about the past or the future because they do not exist, and constantly being anchored to the present by finding and holding space on the bridge in between.

Psalm 46:10: “Be still and know that I am God,” is the Bible verse that Mahdavi lives by, and it always reminds her to stay in the present. When feeling overwhelmed, she turns to nature to guide herself back into the present. A quick trip to the beach or up the mountain to Mount Baldy is where Mahdavi has been finding peace lately, as she has always found nature to be the best medicine to bring her back into the present while dealing with stressful situations. As painful and terrifying as the present can be, it can also be quite exciting. “The danger of living in the past is that you miss the present,” says Mahdavi. Under her leadership, Mahdavi hopes that all ULV students will maximize their potential, stay determined to live in the present, and, most importantly, always do so by owning their narrative.

Learning to Live in the Present

While in Montana riding her horse, President Pardis Mahdavi recalls the moment she felt completely free for a brief moment, before learning a valuable lesson about what can happen when she is not fully engulfed in the present. At the time, Mahdavi was provost and executive vice president at the University of Montana. In her own words, she tells the story:

“I dug my heels into Caspian’s sides. His pulse quickened, as did mine. Before I knew it, we were careening down the mountainside, and for a moment I felt that intoxicating adrenaline coursing through my veins. I closed my eyes, ‘I am flying,’ I said. But then Caspian faltered. His hooves, unused to the snowy grounds, slipped. I pulled him to an immediate halt next to a pond. Caspian, in an attempt to self-soothe, put his head down to take a drink of water. I was so concerned that somebody might have witnessed me losing control, even though that was the feeling I cherished most.

“Caspian abruptly jerked his head up, clashing with my jaw due to two coyotes in the distance jumping out of a bush. This was too much for Caspian, and he was terrified. Because I was not present with him, or with myself, or with the Earth, the land, the grass, the mountains, the sky, all of who were talking to me, I was not his safety anymore, and I was not mine. Caspian pounded forward, running from the coyotes. I lost my balance, and before I could get my precious horse to halt, he reared up and bucked me off. I flew off his withers. Just as my helmet thumped my head back onto a rock, I looked up at Caspian and prayed he would be safe. Then, everything went black.

“When I came to (I later learned I had suffered a concussion, three broken ribs and a slipped disk), my friend was standing over me, holding her horse and Caspian by the reins. Caspian and I stared at each other in confusion. My friend asked me, ‘What happened there?’ ‘I wasn’t present,’ I responded, and apologized to Caspian and myself.

“Despite a long list of injuries, probably my ego being the largest one, I understood that my fall was a gift, and we know that the gift lies closest to the wound. It was a gift that reminded me of what can happen when I am not present, when I am out of alignment, and when I am thinking so much about the past or the future, so determined to fit in one box or another—to prove to people I am enough, I can be both, I can be provost by day, cowgirl by night—that I missed the space between. I missed the bridge, the present embracing the space between.

“In a sense, the present is that space. It is hard to stay in the space between because it can be scary. When you are in the present, you feel everything, you sense everything. You feel the lows and the highs, and both can be equally scary. With an awareness of time, i.e., the past or the future, there is inevitable comparison that occurs in the mind. Where there is comparison, there is judgment and a perception of lack. When you compare yourself to a past or a future, you see yourself as lacking. This is the path that strays from God. What matters most to me, not picking a lane, not defining myself as an island, but being in the present, and receiving that present as a gift that lies closest to my roots.”

President Mahdavi’s Favorites

Pardis Mahdavi, a highly accomplished higher education leader, academic, author and activist, embraces her new title as the University of La Verne’s 19th president inside her Founders Hall office. Success in life, she says, comes from owning your narrative and being in the present. / photo by Kim Toth

Pardis Mahdavi, a highly accomplished higher education leader, academic, author and activist, embraces her new title as the University of La Verne’s 19th president inside her Founders Hall office. Success in life, she says, comes from owning your narrative and being in the present. / photo by Kim Toth

You may have more in common with Pardis Mahdavi than you think. Check out some of her favorites:

  • Food: Tahdig, a crispy Persian rice
  • Ice cream flavor: Mint chip
  • Drink: “Old fashioned,” a cocktail
  • Quote: “Only light can drive out darkness,” Martin Luther King Jr.
  • Memory: Watching the glaciers in Iceland with her two sons, Shayan and Raami
  • Book: “Luster” by Raven Leilani
  • Movie: “Lost in Translation”
  • TV show: “Game of Thrones” and “Yellowstone”
  • Actor: Denzel Washington
  • News source: NPR
  • Car: McLaren Artura
  • Color: Green
  • Season: Fall
  • Day: Friday
  • Recreational activity: Horse riding and kayaking
  • Sport: Basketball
  • Team: Phoenix Suns
  • Athlete: Devin Booker
  • Musician: Drake and Bruno Mars
  • Vacation spot: Bali Indonesia
  • City other than La Verne: Sedona, Arizona

If you share any of these favorites with President Mahdavi, be sure to tell her the next time you see her around campus.

Rebecca Keeler

Rebecca Keeler is a sophomore journalism and music major at the University of La Verne.

Other Stories

Kim Toth is a junior photography major at the University of La Verne and photography editor of the Winter 2024 La Verne Magazine.

Amanda Torres

Amanda Torres is a senior digital media major with a concentration in film and television production and a photography minor at the University of La Verne.