When she arrived in the US as a 10-year-old refugee, Dina Nayeri found it hard to fit in. But that all changed when she hatched a plan to get into Harvard – by becoming a taekwondo champion
When I was 13, three years after arriving in the US with my mother and brother, I devised a plan to get into the Ivy League. I was a refugee kid with no money and I lived in Oklahoma, where university means Tulsa or Stillwater or, if you’re smart, somewhere in Texas. My mother, who had been a doctor in Iran, was now a single parent working in a factory. My father, who was a dental surgeon, had stayed in Iran and rarely sent money. Our sponsors, conservative Reaganite Christians who thought public assistance was a slippery slope to a lifetime of sloth, discouraged us from applying for temporary relief. It took all our energy just to continue living, working and studying. I didn’t have tutors or advisers. No one was bribing coaches or hiring consultants on my behalf. But I did have a vague notion that I needed more than good grades and test scores – I needed to transform into someone the books called “a high achiever”.
Information was hard to come by at first. It was the 1990s, so whatever I knew about Harvard and Yale I got from 80s movies set in a muted and stylised 1950s for the super-rich. My adolescence was all Dead Poets Society and School Ties, so fantasising about getting into a top university meant that I imagined myself as a well-heeled white boy from a good family (with brief interludes to go dancing in Nazi Germany a la Swing Kids. Basically, wherever Robert Sean Leonard went, I was there.)