19 March 2024 • Alums A Sense of Freedom and Belonging By Andrew Wickenden '09

Trustee Mehrnaz “Naz” Vahid-Ahdieh ’85, P’17 came to the U.S. to escape the 1979 Iranian Revolution. Her recent gift establishes a scholarship to support students who have also come to the U.S. as refugees or immigrants.

Tens of thousands of Iranians have fled Iran since the overthrow of the Pahlavi Dynasty and the ruling monarchy in 1979. HWS Trustee Mehrnaz “Naz” Vahid-Ahdieh ’85, P’17 was 16 when she and her brother left to come to the U.S. to live with her uncle while their parents remained in hiding back home.

"Know that you can do whatever you want with a liberal arts education. It truly gives you the ability to make a living — not only to make money, but to drive your passion and figure out what makes you happy every day.” Mehrnaz “Naz” Vahid-Ahdieh ’85, P’17

Just a few short years later, with support from an ESL teacher, she discovered HWS, applied and enrolled. “Being an immigrant, I really stood out. There weren’t that many of us at that point,” she recalls.

“In my second year, my parents basically had to escape Iran, but in spite of it all, I found a home at HWS. I would have dinner with friends and professors, and that’s the reason I feel very connected to school. I always thought I would want another immigrant to experience that sense of belonging,” she says.

With a recent $100,000 gift, she created the Mehrnaz Vahid-Ahdieh ’85 Annual Fund Scholarship to support students who have come to the U.S. as DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) program recipients, refugees and/or immigrants. Through the scholarship, she says she’s hoping to give opportunities like the one she had as a student — to “be able to change one life and as a result, a whole generation of people after it.”

Formative moments

It was at HWS “where I really learned what it was like to live in America,” says Vahid-Ahdieh. “When I came to the U.S., I was living with my aunt and uncle, who themselves were immigrants. Even though my mom was highly educated, my uncle was very much of the old-style, male-dominant individual with thoughts about what rules would be. So coming here gave me a sense of what the opportunities were, what freedom was.”

Influenced by the political turmoil in Iran, Vahid-Ahdieh says she arrived at HWS planning to be a journalist, “somebody that was going to write about wars and revolutions.”

However, after an introductory economics course with Professor of Economics William Waller P’99, P’04, P’09, P’13, “I was sitting at the edge of my seat the whole spring,” she says. “I realized this is really what I’m interested in, and the independence of figuring that out on my own and having the ability to pursue it — it was a big deal for me.”

Making the most of the liberal arts

After graduating with a B.A. in economics and sociology, Vahid-Ahdieh began a career in the finance industry. For more than three decades, she has provided financial advice and services to Citi Private Bank’s clients and meanwhile earned her master’s in international affairs from Columbia University and her series 24, 7 and 63 financial securities licenses. As managing director at Citi and head of the company’s Global Wealth at Work services, she now leads 400 professionals across 15 locations, overseeing financial services to asset management, law, consulting, accounting and technology firms.

She hopes that through her scholarship, students will be empowered “to really use a liberal arts education, not come in saying ‘I want to be a doctor, I want to be an engineer,’” but rather “figure out what you want to be. Know that you can do whatever you want with a liberal arts education. It truly gives you the ability to make a living — not only to make money, but to drive your passion and figure out what makes you happy every day.”

A community of mentors

“The reason I heard about HWS is because my English as second language teacher had a daughter who was attending,” Vahid-Ahdieh says. “I was thinking about going to college and really didn’t know any schools besides the big names, and she said, ‘You’ll like the school.’ She brought me to campus, I applied, I got in. By then I had fallen so in love with HWS.”

Part of the draw was the community — “small enough that you get a sense of belonging, not just to your campus, but to the families of your friends and your professors,” she says. The closeness and support enables students, especially those who are immigrants, to feel comfortable while “truly being in the middle of something that is unfamiliar. And you tend to be unfamiliar to the people whose lives you’ve entered. And that’s a gift to them like it’s a gift to you.”

Between friends and professors at HWS and mentors early in her career, “there were people who took an interest,” she says, inspiring her to support the next generation of students and colleagues.

As an alumna, she has been consistently engaged in student mentoring and career development. She is a regular participant in the annual New York City Finance Experience, which connects HWS students with alumni leaders in the industry, and has served as a judge in the annual student entrepreneurial competition, the Pitch. She has also regularly hosted students for job shadowing experiences and internships. At Citi, she created and oversaw the company’s mentoring program and is the head of the diversity committee for North America.

Vahid-Ahdieh notes the impact that this kind of support has made in her own life. “When people do that for you, there's no other way you can repay that but just somehow figure out a way to pay that forward,” she says. “It makes my soul happy.”

Vahid-Adieh joined the HWS Board of Trustees in 2021. In 2015, she received a citation from the Alumnae Association for exceptional service and dedication to her alma mater. She previously served as chair of the Honors Committee for the Alumnae Association and represented the Association as the keynote speaker at the 2017 Senior Welcome. A loyal supporter of the Colleges’ annual fund, she recently established the Naz Vahid-Ahdieh ’85 Annual Internship Fund for William Smith Students. In 2018, she was awarded the HWS Board of Trustees Career Services Award, which honors members of the HWS community whose commitment and effort through the Salisbury Center have transformed students’ lives.