Woman sitting on bench.

Minoo Ghoreishi, a longtime Harvard Kennedy School administrator, earned her degree from the Extension School at age 57.

Jon Chase/Harvard Staff Photographer

Campus & Community

A 40-year road

5 min read

Extension School grad celebrates the degree it took a lifetime to earn

Minoo Ghoreishi’s path to a bachelor’s degree in government from the Harvard Extension School was daunting and arduous, not least because it took the single mother four decades. Over that time, the 57-year-old Iranian American, who works for the Mossavar-Rahmani Center for Business and Government, learned much — and became a lesson in courage and perseverance for family and colleagues.

Always an avid learner, Ghoreishi’s first attempt at college was disrupted by politics. Born and raised in Tehran, she graduated high school at just 16 and went to London to study in 1977. But reports of the civil unrest in her homeland drew her back the next year, and her dreams of higher education were upended by the Iranian Revolution. In February 1979, Iran closed its universities for what was termed “curriculum reform.” War with Iraq followed, claiming members of Ghoreishi’s family. Determined to carry on with her education, Ghoreishi applied successfully to Johns Hopkins University but was unable to get a student visa when the U.S. cut diplomatic ties with Iran in 1980 after the hostage crisis.

She agreed to an arranged marriage two years later, which resulted in her move to the U.S., but pregnancy and domestic issues put a damper on her long-held ambition of becoming a doctor.

In 1998, following a divorce, Ghoreishi found herself raising her two young children, Sherry and Shawn Hakimi, as both primary caregiver and breadwinner. She got jobs at a local bank and in retail sales to help make ends meet. She landed her first spot at Harvard as an administrative assistant at the Harvard Children’s Initiative the following year, overjoyed to have full-time work with benefits and a 9-to-5 schedule. “It was a dream for me,” she said. “I wanted to be home nights and weekends with my kids.”

That job ended a year later with the closure of the program, but Ghoreishi found a new position at the Harvard Kennedy School (HKS) and began taking Extension School courses. She first focused on the basics, like expository writing. Then, once her children had gone off to college, she applied to the bachelor’s of liberal arts program. “I felt like this is my opportunity,” she recalled. “This is my time.”

Woman in cap and gown at graduation, flanked by two people.

Minoo Ghoreishi (center) with her daughter, Sherry Hakimi (right) and her son, Shawn Hakimi.

Photo courtesy of Minoo Ghoreishi

But what to study? Ghoreishi parsed the range of options. “I looked at the course catalog, and I would say, ‘What do I want to learn about more about?’” Planning to concentrate in government, she dove into a class on the history of American foreign policy.

“Foreign policy was a subject that was close to my heart,” she explained. “It changed my life, so many times.”

There was one problem. Ghoreishi had overlooked that the course was graduate level. She persisted, nonetheless, taking away from that class an important lesson: Help is available for the asking. When she began to struggle to keep up with the reading, she talked to her teaching assistants, who gave her extra time, and to her faculty adviser, who worked with her to plot out a more measured curriculum going forward. Her adviser also helped her get hooked up with additional resources, like the Writing Center, as well as a workshop that helped her identify her learning style.

“There are always challenges, between work and life,” she said.

Ghoreishi says she was fortunate that her bosses and colleagues at HKS have been supportive. Scott Leland, executive director of the Mossavar-Rahmani Center, has been her supervisor for nearly two decades and finds her ambition and drive inspiring. “Minoo’s story of overcoming obstacles and pursuing her education over many years is so uplifting.” He said. “She is an example to staff, students, and faculty alike of the power of keeping a positive attitude.”

“It is not easy; like everything else, you need to sacrifice. But at the end, it’s a privilege.”

Minoo Ghoreishi

Ghoreishi was scheduled to graduate last spring, but in keeping with the rest of her college journey, there was a hiccup: For the first time in her life, she failed an exam. In an effort to finish her credits, she had signed up for an intensive self-study exam but missed the passing score by one point.

“The disappointment I felt was unlike anything I’d ever experienced,” she said.

She was told that she would have to finish her coursework before formally receiving her diploma, which she did.

Sherry Hakimi, who got her master’s in public policy from HKS in 2012, published a Medium piece about her mother’s achievement.

“Her tenacity and creativity in the face of difficulty has been the delta in our family’s ability to rebuild,” she wrote. “Her grit is the foundation on which my brother and I pursued our individual dreams and paths.”

Now Ghoreishi is taking a breather and hopes to learn the cha-cha and study French in the spring. “Of course, Thanksgiving feels like a blessing this year,” she added. However, the avid learner has already spoken to her adviser about starting a certificate program, with a master’s degree a possibility somewhere ahead.

“It is not easy,” she said of her accomplishment. “Like everything else, you need to sacrifice. But at the end, it’s a privilege.”