Mary Hegland

Mary Hegland

Professor of anthropology

Iran 1966–68

The Peace Corps was perhaps the most formative experience of my life—giving me my career in cultural anthropology and the geographical focus on Iran and the Middle East. I gained my calling—working to serve as a bridge between people of different countries, religions, and cultures. Since the Iranian Revolution of 1979, attempting to explain the people of Iran to Americans, so that they can be seen as other human beings rather than frightening enemies, has become extremely important. I am fascinated by Iranian culture and delight in my research trips back to southwestern Iran, near the city of Shiraz. I have now known my friends in the village of Aliabad 33 years!

Peace Corps sent me to Mahabad, a Kurdish city of about 30,000 in the Zagros Mountains, near the Iraq border. I taught English as a second language at the girls’ high school. I became fascinated with how people could have such different ideas, values, and perspectives from my own—and yet, in so many ways, we all wanted the same basic things: the respect of others, the well-being of family and friends, interesting pursuits, a meaningful life.

I also learned, in June 1968, that American foreign policy could have disastrous effects on the lives of individuals in other countries: when an agreement between the CIA and the main Kurdish political group in Iraq resulted in the capture and killing by the Iranian military of two prominent Kurdish dissidents. One man’s naked body was hung by a helicopter that circled over the city. The other body was tied to an upright ladder in the main square. Attached to his body, a sign: This is what happens to people who resist the Shah’s regime. Horrified, I visited the sister of one man who had been killed. We wept together, grieving both for her brother and for Bobby Kennedy, who had just been killed in Los Angeles.

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