New diversity ambassador brings experiential empathy


Debra Levey Larson

Taha Shafa
Taha Shafa

Although Taha Shafa was born in America, he understands what it feels like to be a foreigner. He believes his experiences as a first-generation Iranian American make him uniquely qualified to be among the seven selected to be in the first cohort of The Grainger College of Engineering graduate student diversity ambassadors.

Shafa spoke only Farsi until he entered grade school in Boston, Massachusetts. By the time he became an adolescent, his life was like a cultural teeter-totter, balancing between two very different worlds.

“At home, I followed Iranian customs, ate Iranian food, and spoke Farsi,” he said. “Outside my home, I experienced a significant contrast to the customs I was familiar with. The students behaved differently than anyone I ever interacted with, the language was foreign, the humor and food seemed alien to me, and there was no guide to help me navigate this other world. At home, my family taught me how to behave. Out in the world, those taught behaviors made me different.”

Initially, Shafa said the process of assimilating into a foreign culture—American—was overwhelming. Now, he says, it is one of the most difficult yet rewarding experiences of his life.

“At first, there was so much to learn about the language, pop culture, and interpersonal relationships with little common ground to start from,” Shafa said. “In an effort to coexist with my classmates, I rarely felt like I was being myself.”

He describes the immense effort and a substantial amount of time it took for him to find things in common with people and develop friendships. As he did, however, people started showing an interest in him and his culture.

“It was at this point I felt like I could be myself, like I belonged in a community that was benefiting from my presence as much as I was benefiting from theirs,” he said. “What started as a struggle eventually resulted in lifelong friendships that expanded the perspectives of me and my friends and turned us into empathetic, compassionate adults.”

As an ambassador, Shafa will be a liaison between prospective graduate students from largely underrepresented backgrounds and the graduate program. He will have a mentor/mentee relationship with a set of students who have already been accepted and will help recruit new students to ensure the UIUC graduate program remains a culturally diverse environment where people from all backgrounds feel welcome.

As a second-year Ph.D. student, Shafa understands how international students feel when they arrive on campus. In addition to the daunting task of integrating into a foreign environment, they must also deal with the stressful and demanding environment of a university.

“This sense of broadening perspectives from a multicultural community is what I want most to help cultivate at UIUC as a diversity ambassador,” Shafa said. “My journey has not just been one of success but serves as empirical evidence of how we all benefit from diversity. I have been fortunate enough to be introduced to a unique variety of experiences, cuisine, art, humor, and hobbies that I would have otherwise missed if I was exposed to only one culture. That is the beauty of diversity. While each culture is amazing in different ways, they each convey only part of the human story. If an entire group of people somewhere in the world have all implicitly agreed to repeatedly do something, whether that something is to eat a certain dish, play a specific game, or enjoy some style of art, then there must be some aspect of that activity that any person would enjoy. If we don’t take advantage of the plethora of cultural perspectives around the world, we shortchange our lives by denying ourselves personal connections and experiences we would love.”

Shafa’s adviser in the Department of Aerospace Engineering is Melkior Ornik, with whom he researches dynamic systems and control theory.

For more about the diversity ambassador program, visit