A long road: Mohammad Torshizi decided early on his academic career that the U of S was the place to be-- and his students are glad he did

Mohammad Torshizi has revived an old practice — only this time, it’s the teacher who gives apples to his students.

And while it’s not the precise reason the PhD candidate won a prestigious teaching award, it’s part of a story that veers as far from the ordinary as you can get.

It starts in the 31-year-old’s home town of Gorgan, a city of 270,000 in northern Iran. The country may conjure up images of arid, austere landscapes, but that’s not Torshizi’s Iran.

“It’s not very far from the Caspian Sea and it’s a beautiful place, always green,” he says. “Actually it’s very similar to Vancouver.”

The next twist is the career choice of a city kid whose father is a dentist and whose favourite subjects in grade school were physics and math.

“Although I grew up in the city, my uncle has a small hobby farm and I always helped him in the summertime,” says Torshizi. “That got me interested in agriculture, but I didn’t want to farm for a living because I knew just how hard it is. Since I was also interested in physics and math, I thought I should find something that had some of both. So that is how I came to agricultural economics.”

In fact, it was a very specific branch that caught his interest: ag policy. Again, it was a choice influenced by his time on his uncle’s farm. Like many small-scale farmers, his uncle had no tractor, much less a combine, and so Torshizi and his cousins would harvest wheat with a scythe.

Iran is actually a major wheat producer, harvesting (with combines) about 13 million tonnes annually. But the challenges faced by small-scale farmers remained with Torshizi when he went to university. It’s one of many issues where sound ag policy can make a huge difference, he says.

“I was interested in many issues, such as inefficient irrigation systems and overuse of subsidized fertilizers,” he says. “I guess I was a naïve 19-year-old, but I was sure that if I learned ag policy, I could find ways to resolve them.”

And the young Iranian undergrad knew exactly where he could find that training — Saskatoon.

“I applied for a couple of other universities, but I knew I had to be at U of S,” says Torshizi. “There are not many people who are really good at ag policy. I had heard of Hartley Furtan and others, and I really liked the stuff that Richard Gray was doing, so this is where I wanted to come.”

Getting to Saskatchewan was the next challenge.

“One of my teachers did his PhD under this other person and that guy did his PhD at the University of Saskatchewan,” he says. “I thought that if I made a good impression on this guy and got really good marks, he would introduce me to the other guy, and eventually I could maybe get introduced to people at U of S.”

It was not an easy process, and among the challenges was earning a top score in nationwide exams to get into the Masters program at the University of Tehran, which only accepts three candidates a year. But, in the end, it worked out and in August 2009, Torshizi stepped off a plane in Saskatoon.

But there was one more big hurdle to overcome.

Ever the diligent student, Torshizi took English classes five days a week for a year and a half before coming to Canada. He was far from proficient, but figured his English would quickly improve once here.

“Then a very strange thing happened — after a while, I realized that I was understanding less and less,” he says. “I wondered how this could be, and then I realized that I was scared of not understanding people. So I was avoiding conversations — or running away from them — because I was afraid that I might not understand. It was a vicious cycle.”

So he forced himself to talk to people, even though it was uncomfortable and he frequently felt embarrassed. Today, he’s perfectly fluent but that experience had a lasting effect. In Torshizi’s classes, not participating is not an option.

“I know some people are shy and don’t want to talk because they don’t want to be out of their comfort zone,” he says. “But I just knew I had to find a way to get them to talk.”

This is where giving out apples comes in (and how Torshizi garnered a 2014 North American Colleges and Teachers of Agriculture teaching award for graduate students).

“I have ways to break the ice and get them talking. For example, I might give them a protein bar or an apple if they ask a good question, give a good answer to a question, or make a good comment. And if I make a mistake and someone says, ‘Hey, you did this wrong,’ then they get a protein bar. I want them to be comfortable in my course, not just sitting there and wishing the class was over.”

And even at the end of the class, students may not be able to slip quietly away.

“If a student gets a bad mark, I’ll ask them to come to my office and I will say, ‘I know you’re smart. I know you can do this. What went wrong here?’”

Torshizi laughs as he tells this story, adding, “Maybe they study harder in my course because they don’t want to come to my office and have this awkward conversation with me again.”

The economist also charts his students’ progress with graphs of their marks.

“Some who had the worst marks at the beginning ended up with some of the highest marks,” he says.

And no one ever falls off Torshizi’s radar. Miss a few classes and you can expect an email asking if everything is OK.

“I don’t see them as a class or a bunch of students,” he says. “No, I see them as individuals and every one of them matters. Once they realize that, it can change their life.”

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