Parya Saberi MFA ’21 Takes a Leap from the Sciences to the Arts

Before she attended Saint Mary’s, Parya Saberi already had an accomplished career as an Associate Professor at the Center for AIDS Prevention Studies at the University of California San Francisco (UCSF), but she joined the MFA Dance program to fulfill her lifelong passion for dance.

While Saberi has always been a dancer, she wanted to show her peers that balancing work and school is possible. “I was like, ‘You know, I’m a faculty member at UCSF, and I have multiple NIH [National Institutes of Health] grants and do all these things, and have a full family. I will do this, and I will show you that it’s possible.’ And so it kind of started out as a bit of a dare,” said Saberi.

“I particularly like the MFA program at Saint Mary’s because of the amazing faculty we have and because of the flexibility it offers. I think that’s really helpful particularly nowadays if people have to work and still make ends meet.” 

Saberi began practicing folk and classic dances as a young child living in Iran, and continued dancing after immigrating to the United States and studying pharmacy.

“The pursuit of dance is not considered a reputable profession for anyone in Iran, particularly women. It’s actually more or less equivalent to prostitution or selling your body. Even the word for dancers, raqqas, is a very low-level thing,” explained Saberi. “My family really encouraged me to go into medicine because that’s what all ‘good students’ and all ‘good girls’ do. That’s why I started studying pharmacy and I got my doctorate in pharmacy. I was really more interested in research, so as a result I got my master’s in clinical research from UCSF.”

Saberi credits Professors Cathy Davalos, Shaunna Vella, and Rosana Barragan for helping her explore her cultural identity through dance. “These three individuals had the most impact on furthering the discovery of my identity and kind of learning about myself, and just giving voice to that through dance in a really authentic way.”

She also explored culture and dance in her thesis, and wrote two articles that were published by Dance Magazine and Dancers’ Group Saberi performing a dance around the theme of restriction for Professor Rosana Barragan's choreography class

“People can take Iranian dance and culturally appropriate it and make money from it, but what they can’t take is that lived-body experience I have of living in Iran and being an Iranian.”

How does Saberi hope to merge pharmacy and dance? “I would love to be involved with...creative dance classes for women who have been impacted by HIV. I always think of possibilities for writing grants for looking at an intervention where dance is used to impact mental health challenges for people living with HIV,” Saberi said. 

Saberi hopes her experience encourages others interested in the MFA program to follow their passions. “It was something that I always wanted to pursue, and if I was just left to my devices to decide what I wanted to do, I probably would have gone into the arts. So, it almost felt like a renewal or a second chance at making a decision where I wasn’t pressured by family members trying to decide my future for me.”

“It’s a really great program, so I really recommend it. If I could do it again in a heartbeat, I would.”

To learn more about the MFA Dance program, click here.