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Banned Together: Iranian Professor Worries Travel Ban Will Keep Out 'Best Of The Best'

An Iranian-born professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago said the uncertainty surrounding President Donald Trump’s travel ban could affect his ability to recruit the “best of the best” to his engineering program. Professor Abolfazl “Kouros” Mohammadian, who heads the university’s civil and materials engineering department, said a “large portion” of his graduate students come from Iran. But Trump’s executive order to temporarily ban immigrants and refugees from seven Muslim-majority countries, including Iran, have many potential students considering other options.

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Abolfazl Mohammadian

Abolfazl “Kouros” Mohammadian at the University of Illinois at Chicago on Feb. 2, 2017.

Paula Friedrich

An Iranian-born professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago said the uncertainty surrounding President Donald Trump’s travel ban could affect his ability to recruit the “best of the best” to his engineering program.

Professor Abolfazl “Kouros” Mohammadian, who heads the university’s civil and materials engineering department, said a “large portion” of his graduate students come from Iran.

But Trump’s executive order to temporarily ban immigrants and refugees from seven Muslim-majority countries, including Iran, have many potential students considering other options.

“I am in a situation where I don’t know what we have to do with the applications we are reviewing right now,” he said. “People are contacting me asking, ‘Should I apply to Australia? Should I apply to Canada? Should I apply to Europe?’ That’s why I need an answer. I needed an answer yesterday.”

A federal appeals court on Tuesday heard arguments to reinstate the ban. A ruling is expected later this week.

Despite struggling to get the top American graduate students, Mohammedian said his program gets lots of students from Sharif University of Technology in Iran, the best engineering school in that country.

“You put MIT, Berkeley and Stanford together -- it’s the Iranian equivalent of that,” he said. “These are the best of the best.”

Mohammedian, who is now a U.S. citizen, said he doesn’t know what to tell Iranian applicants.

“Those who we are planning to admit, we don’t know whether they can get a visa and come here in time for the next semester.”

Mohammedian said many of his students, who work on projects for organizations ranging from the Natural Science Foundation to the Illinois Department of Transportation, elect to stay and work in the Chicago area after they graduate.

“For many years, the Iranian government and people there have been complaining about the ‘brain drain,’” he said, in reference to Iranian students who study abroad and never return. “This is a gift to them, basically.”

Editor’s note: WBEZ spoke with Chicago-area residents from each of the seven countries named in President Donald Trump’s travel ban. They spoke about how the uncertainty is affecting their businesses, careers and students. Find all of their stories here.

Miles Bryan is a producer and reporter at WBEZ. Follow him on Twitter at @miles__bryan.

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