Bridging Cultures: An Iranian Woman from an Historically Black College Teaching in a Prison in the US

by Zeinab Bandpey (

Morgan State University, Baltimore, MD 21251

Prisoners are provided with a college education so that when they are released, they will adjust easily to society and won’t return to prison. I was fascinated by the idea so much that I wanted to be a part of it. As a result, I have been teaching in prison for two consecutive semesters. In this essay, I will explain how the fact that I am an immigrant from Iran having a single-entry visa helped me to get along with students in a U.S. prison and also motivated them to rely on themselves, focus on their successes and do better in math. I will talk about the challenges my students and I have gone through and, at the end, I will come up with some suggestions that I believe might help any prisoner attending math class in prison.


My name is Zeinab Bandpey, a graduate of the Ph.D. program in Industrial and Computational Mathematics at Morgan State University. I have been an adjunct faculty member at Towson University and the University of Baltimore.  The University of Baltimore was selected to participate in the U.S. Department of Education’s Second Chance Pell Grant Program, and I was privileged to be a part of this program as a math instructor, to teach fundamentals of mathematics and college algebra.

How it started

My Ph.D. advisor was always looking for ways to help me survive financially in the U.S.  A professor at Towson University had informed him of this program and my advisor passed the information along to me.  I was fascinated by the idea and I wanted to be a part of it: “How cool is that?” I thought. “Prisoners are offered college education.   It’s called a second chance.”  I was curious: how many of them are going to take this chance seriously, and what is my role to motivate them to get into science? I had all these thoughts in my head when I attended the faculty meeting;. I was the only international instructor! And it freaked me out, because it was just a few months since I had moved to the U.S. I could not speak English properly, but I passionately wanted to do the program and I knew from the bottom of my heart that I could do it.

After being introduced to the students by my supervisor in the program, I went to each one of them to have a small conversation, asking for their names and a little more information about themselves: What do they want to study? Do they like mathematics?  Why have they decided to participate in this program?

Although they answered my questions, sounding more determined than students in college classrooms, they were more concerned about my perspective of them, and they asked me questions like “Why are you here?” “Do you see us as a bunch of criminals who will never change and who will never have a bright future?” “Have you ever been afraid of being among 30 inmates who are mostly African American?” These questions made me think that they are afraid of prejudgments and they need to know their professors believe in them and trust the fact that some, if not all, of them are going to change their lives using the opportunity they have been given.  I noticed that my attitude might change everything and I must prove myself to them first, that I believe in them and I am sure they are going to pass this class and any other classes they have taken perfectly.

It was not hard for me to come up with a response: I am an Iranian woman studying math, I have been down this road before, where people judge me because of my nationality or my gender. So, I could easily see their point: they did not want me to judge them because of their race or because of where they were born and grew up.  I started to know each one of them individually and it helped to persuade them to go through the exams and classes.

It is worth mentioning that throughout the very first conversation I had with them, I found three of them very interested in math and computer science and I promised them I’d help them with learning basic stuff in these majors, as the University of Baltimore does not offer STEM majors through this program, and all of them essentially have to study other majors for now.  One of the students, with notes I gave him, was able to write code to calculate Catalan numbers.  This had certainly been done before, but he did not know this and did it all by himself.  I saw this as a huge success.

Challenges in the classroom

It was beyond my imagination how small problems would make teaching hard and how student support and help would make things better.  When we started, we did not even have a proper classroom with a board.  There was a big room called the library with huge fans to keep the room’s temperature normal as it gets hot even on the coldest day of winter. Those fans made a horrible noise which made it hard for people sitting at the end of the room to hear me. Also, with the lack of a normal-sized board, it was harder to explain concepts because I had to erase things as soon as I wrote them down. Surprisingly enough, no student complained in class. They used to turn off the fans and sit closer to the board. They asked their supervisor afterwards to provide us with a bigger board, and after half of the semester we actually got one.

Another issue that I found challenging was that the students’ ages ranged from 25 to 65.  Some of them have been away from studying math for more than 20 years and some others were young and quick learners; it was hard to arrange the pace of the class. If you go fast, those in their 40s and more would be left behind, and if you go slow, it would get boring to the other group. A normal pace would be also too slow for fast learners and too fast for slow learners. But again, they were so passionate and they wanted it to work out, so when I asked them to make groups and distributed students in such a way that in each desk there would be mixtures of those two groups.   Fast learners could help slow learners to understand better.  They accepted the arrangement, and it worked nicely.

Exam anxiety was another important issue, and I believe the most important reason for that was lack of confidence. The other reason might have been they did not want to disappoint their instructors, and that would put more pressure on them. One of my students had a very hard time during the first 3 or 4 exams.  He was a good student and he never left a homework assignment undone, but he had test anxiety so that he used to sweat a lot—so much that I was concerned something would happen to him.  He would get upset and express that he hates math. One time I sat next to him and asked him to do his exam and talk to me whenever he does not feel all right. He did, and explained he knows the concepts very well and he does not know what is happening during the exam so that he could not answer the questions properly. What I thought would help was to distract him from thinking about his not being able to answer the test questions by asking for specific definitions or concepts which would refresh his memory. He liked math at the end, and he said he felt much better now. He added, “I do not hate it anymore but I still do not love it.” He passed both classes he took with me with a B.

The students rarely had access to the internet and computers. Some basic problems were that they could not use “MyMathLab” or tutorial videos. They did not have graphing calculators for college algebra, and they could not reach me whenever they had questions using emails or office hours.

How could I relate my experiences to theirs?

I was a student under a single-entry F1 visa, which had taken me more than a year to get. Having a single-entry visa and studying for my Ph.D. meant I could not travel back to my country to visit my family because it was too risky. I might have lost the chance to finish my Ph.D., so I was kind of a prisoner in a big country.  Because I was following my dreams, I totally understood the feeling that you do not appreciate holidays as you cannot celebrate them with your beloved family. I felt it strongly when they said they could not focus on class as they were missing a lot by being in prison (like birthdays, weddings, funerals, …).

In his speech on orientation day, one of the students, with tears in his eyes, told us how hard it was for him to stay focused and keep trying when prison staff always saw him as a prisoner and discouraged him from what he was doing in school.  This touched me personally: in the same way, many of the students (and staff) could not understand how a woman from Iran could be Muslim but not practicing, was not a terrorist or terrorist supports, and in fact did work in mathematical counter-terrorism.

In my personal life since I moved to the USA I have tried harder than anytime else in my life to achieve my goals and to make it worth being away from my family.  It went through very well. So, I encouraged them to use the time they have in prison to create something nice, study hard and make themselves and their family proud. I’d like to believe it worked, as out of 30 students in my class, 28 of them passed the class successfully and with passion.

At the end, what I think made this experience a successful one was we all believed, no matter how hard things worked out, that we were in the same group and we helped each other out through the challenges. Teaching math is not just instructing them to deal with numbers: it is building confidence in them to understand the logic behind each problem.  They believed in me and I believed in them, and we had a great experiences there, in prison.

From a Handwritten Letter

May 31, 2017

Dear Professor Bandpey

           Thank you for your patience, hard work, and dedication to teaching me to believe in myself.  Before I started this class I not only HATED math. I was also horrible at it and didn’t believe that I could do math.  However, you’ve taught [me] to have confidence in myself and with that confidence I began to get better grades.  I can now teach my son math in the future…  Thank you for making me believe in myself.  I pray that you are successful in all of your future engagements.




I would like to thank Prof. Jonathan Farley for his support in writing this essay.







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2 Responses to Bridging Cultures: An Iranian Woman from an Historically Black College Teaching in a Prison in the US

  1. Nitsa Movshovitz-Hadar says:

    How touching. Thanks for sharing.

  2. maheshsea says:

    First of all, thanks for sharing this article. You explained each situation very well. I hope you will post more articles.

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