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At Iranian Colleges, Some See Brighter Future In Another Country

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At Iranian Colleges, Some See Brighter Future In Another Country

Culture

At Iranian Colleges, Some See Brighter Future In Another Country

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

In Iran, President Hassan Rouhani has been promising to bring more job opportunities to the country. But he's asking for patience. For college students in particular, that may be a lot to ask.

NPR's Peter Kenyon has just returned from a trip to Tehran, and says while the president's message is welcome, it's not enough to stop many young people from making other plans.

PETER KENYON, BYLINE: Millions of Iranians are living outside the Islamic republic. The drain of Iranian talent is one of many problems the Rouhani administration is facing. And an unscientific sampling of Iran's students suggests the government has some way to go.

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KENYON: Outside Tehran University, Iran's largest, you can find earnest young students like 21-year-old Abul Fazle Mahmoudian, a mathematics major who says he knows job prospects are grim but he's not looking to leave.

ABUL FAZLE MAHMOUDIAN: (Through translator) Unfortunately, there aren't many jobs for young graduates right now. But our supreme leader says if you rely on your own potential, everything will work out well.

KENYON: But it seems many more shares the view of 27-year-old Said, a post-graduate student who says many of his friends are looking to go abroad. And he probably will to, which is why he won't give his last name. Ironically, he says the new government's laudable efforts to rein in inflation and stabilize the Iranian currency may add to the departures.

SAID: About three or four years before this, people exchanged their money into dollars. Now, the rate is four times expensive and this is a big problem to go abroad.

KENYON: Iran, with a population of nearly 80 million, is hardly the first country to suffer a brain-drain, but it has unusual circumstances that compound the problem. In 2006, the U.S. nonprofit Migration Information Source said Iran was experiencing what it called one of the highest rates of brain drain in the world while, at the same time, taking in extraordinarily large numbers of refugees, mainly from Iraq and Afghanistan.

Twenty-four-year-old Arman is studying architecture, having switched from chemical engineering. He asks that his last name not be used, because he doesn't want to jeopardize his chances of getting an exit visa. When asked what opportunities he and his classmates can look forward to, he shakes his head.

ARMAN: Actually, you could say none because the people that are - especially young people that are actually trying to run away.

KENYON: Arman says that's not only true of his private university, where students from better-off families tend to go. He says the same feeling prevails at the much larger Tehran University.

ARMAN: I sneak into Tehran University and their classes because I really interested to see those people; actually they all just want to escape.

KENYON: Arman and other students say the reason Iran turns out so many math and science majors is because those disciplines are more attractive to foreign post-graduate schools and companies. They also say it's not just money that draws young Iranians away, it's the stifling repression of social and political diversity in the Islamic Republic.

Amir graduated to work in the family business but his real passion is leftist politics, which is why he won't give his full name. If youth is the time to experiment with diverse, even radical ideas, he says Iran right now is no place for the young. People are still reeling from the violent crushing of street protests following the 2009 elections, and Rouhani's election last year hasn't made much difference.

AMIR: I think it's not really a change. We can't have any collective groups and we don't have party. They pushed people in Iran to elect between bad and worse. So people do that.

KENYON: In his address marking the 35th anniversary of the Islamic Revolution, President Rouhani singled out Iran's universities as places where restrictions are easing. But the continuing desire emigrate suggests that it will take far more than a better economy, to convince young Iranians that what they're seeing isn't just a cosmetic improvement to a repressive system.

Peter Kenyon, NPR News.

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