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A PhD Student With a Commute and a Family: Mohammad Nozari's Story

Mohammad Nozari and family

May 1, 2014

Mohammad Nozari’s days are filled with things just about any graduate student is familiar with: Classes. Research. Teaching. Dissertation work.

But there are other things, too. There are the 45 minutes, each way, that he’ll spend getting to and from campus — sometimes more, if parking is scarce. There are cultural events with other grad students and people from his home country, Iran. And, most important, there are his wife and daughter, with whom he wants to spend every minute he can.

Drexel graduate students’ lives can vary in a number of ways: Some are international students. Some commute from outside of Philadelphia. Some have families.

Nozari, a PhD student in chemistry, can count himself a member of all three of those groups. How does he manage it all, alongside a busy grad-school lifestyle?

“It is really challenging,” Nozari said. “I cannot say it is easy at all.”

A look at his list of responsibilities makes that clear. He’s involved in two research groups. (His primary interest: synthesizing new dyes for use in solar cells.) He works as a teaching assistant. He’s an officer in three different student groups: the International Graduate Student Association, the Persian Student Association and the Chemistry Graduate Student Association. He hopes to finish his dissertation within two to three years.

All that work keeps him on campus until about 9 p.m. three days per week, and about 7 p.m. other days. He comes in to work some weekends, too.

And those are just his responsibilities at school. He’s also a husband and father. So he moves things around to spend as much time as he can with his wife, Aida, and his 2-year-old daughter, Ailin, who moved here with Mohammad from Iran about two years ago.

“You don’t want to miss them,” Nozari said. “You don’t want to ignore them. But you also don’t want to ignore your research.”

Sometimes that means some creative scheduling. Often, he’ll get in a few hours of studying after Aida and Ailin are asleep, leaving him with perhaps four hours of sleep before heading back to campus. 

Aida’s visa does not allow her to work in the U.S., and she stays home to care for Ailin. That means Mohammad’s wages from his teaching position must support three people instead of one. Affordability concerns were a big reason the family decided to live in the suburbs to the southwest of the city.

Of course, that adds another element to Mohammad’s schedule: commuting. Whether he takes the SEPTA Regional Rail system or drives, it takes him about 45 minutes to get to campus.

“All people who commute, they have to learn to balance their time,” Nozari said.

He tries to use his commuting time constructively. Right now, he’s learning to speak Spanish and Italian. He already speaks five languages: Azari (his first language), Turkish, Persian, English and French.

Nozari acknowledges that his packed schedule makes things difficult sometimes. But when asked what it’s like being a parent in graduate school, the first thing he mentions are the advantages he has.

“When I get home, my daughter and my wife welcome me with a smile, and all tiredness is gone,” Nozari said. Many other international students, especially, report feeling homesick while in graduate school, he said. But with his wife and daughter at his side, that hasn’t been a problem for him.

And as he works toward his goal of a good job in academia or industry, Mohammad’s family also provides him with maximum motivation to do good work — and fast.

“I have to really focus on what I’m doing,” Nozari said. “I have plans. Sometimes I get really tired, but because of them, I have to push myself harder.”