They say that we cannot predict the exact moment that a friendship is formed, but I am sure that all will agree that the instant they meet Dr. Bijan Saadatmand, otherwise known as Uncle Bijan, they are instantly infected by his generous spirit and loving heart. If hugs and kisses are reserved for the most intimate friends, then Uncle Bijan has made a friend in every person he has ever met. Perhaps it is the way he warmly welcomes each person he encounters, whether he sees that person every day, or whether he has not seen them in months. Dr. Jane Halonen, Director of the School of Psychology in which Uncle Bijan has been a professor for 31 years, relates her unforgettable first meeting with Uncle Bijan during her job interview for JMU three years ago; "he asked, 'Is it okay if I can kiss you?'" As is customary, he greeted her with a warm kiss on both cheeks. She soon discovered, as does any person who has the pleasure of knowing Uncle Bijan, that his affectionate hugs and kisses are only a preview of the generous, steadfast love that embodies his unwavering spirit.
As head of the Office of International Students, Bijan is in charge of approximately 1,000 undergraduate students from various countries around the world. His influence on these students, however, is far greater than administrative:
"I just can not say enough about that man, it's just, he being a big, big influence on my life. There's a few people that a human being will meet throughout his life that's gonna change the direction of his life, and you know, I think my parents are those people, next to them is Uncle Bijan. Just to tell you how much of a huge influence he's had on me, on my life and the track. And how I just got to where I am right now. I don't think I'd be able to do it, I maybe would've had a different life if he was not there and he was not as adviser, as his fatherhood, his help and love, and the fact that he invites us to his family. I've met all his family. I was invited to the wedding of his son, which is very honor to me. And make me sit down with Dr. Rose at the same table, for example, just the fact that he puts you up there. He doesn't think that there's a spot for you, for you. For him, people are just the same. He love people the same way, it does not matter what your title is."
It is unfathomable that a single person could remember the name and face of nearly every other person he encounters, but Uncle Bijan does just that. Many times, people will say "it's nothing personal" when it comes to work or business, but Uncle Bijan makes sure that everything is personal. His co-workers, his superiors, and especially his students, are all treated with the love and respect that is usually reserved only for family.
"I think Uncle Bijan really has a big, big huge influence on anybody that he met, anybody that he met every day has something to say about that guy. He hugs them, he give a kiss, he will cheer you up when you're down. He will talk good on your back, just try to promote you and promote your picture, and especially with me, he definitely helped me out to get the position where I am, by talking good about me every time he's in a meeting . . . it's just not me, I mean, this is my own experience, but everybody else. Everybody else, he helps everybody else. And I think he is the cause to have a diverse campus here. I don't think that without him, I mean probably, there's international students everywhere at every school, but it's just that the relationship that we have between us, as international students, is like family."
Both in and out of the classroom, Uncle Bijan is constantly encouraging diversity and emphasizing the beauty and strength of individuality. In his self-created Psychology of Human Intimacy course, which has literally changed the lives of thousands of students who have experienced a semester in the class, it is not uncommon to find his International students crammed amongst the many who grace every seat in the classroom, including the leftover space in the aisles. Bijan passionately teaches his human intimacy course, constantly encouraging his international students to explain how human relationships are similar or different in their individual cultures. Uncle Bijan is always raising awareness and sensitivity about diversity. One international student explains,
"It's okay to be different than other people. If you get offended from somebody, he will just always make it positive, all the time. Every now and then you get a comment that may be stereotyping you because of your religion, or maybe because of your nationality, he just always sticks up and says, you know what, they just don't know. Show them who you are, show you what you're all about. Talk about your culture, be proud. Just be yourself and be proud of who you are. . . I think diversity is just a wonderful thing, and he really brought that diverse campus to JMU."
Like wildfire, Uncle Bijan's vastly unique and steadfast devotion to life spreads to those who have the privilege of encountering him. His magnetic charm and endless display of generosity and kindness literally attract people from all around the world.
"When he first started his job 27 years ago, or maybe 30 now, they had maybe 10 or 12 international students. Now, it's almost 1,000 between faculty and staff and everybody. He just . . .the number of people that he attracted to this campus is just unbelievable. There's people that went ahead and they still, they have their wives and family, they're still in contact with him. I believe he has family in every single country all over the world, no doubt. I don't have any doubt in my mind that my house will be open for him forever and ever."
Outside of his steadfast commitment and devotion as a Psychology instructor and as head of the Office of International Students, Uncle Bijan of course takes an active role in his family's life. His son, a JMU alum and member of Sigma Chi fraternity, had the pleasure of experiencing his own father serve as the faculty adviser of the fraternity. To these men, Uncle Bijan became "Papa" Bijan and certainly took on the role of a father, not just to his own son, but to his son's fraternity brothers as well. Sigma Chi brother Monty Drummond explains,
"Basically he's just one of those individuals that crosses your path that has an amazing personality as far as, I've never seen him not have the strength or the time to talk to anyone about anything. He's definitely somebody you can connect with essentially upon meeting him. Truly after you meet him, I don't know anyone that I've spoken to about him, about Papa Bijan, that haven't been thoroughly impressed with him . . . I can't imagine anyone who would say otherwise."
Perhaps the most outstanding characteristic about Uncle Bijan is his deep-rooted commitment to living each and every day to its absolute fullest. No obstacle, physical or mental, can stop Uncle Bijan from serving those he loves or from doing what he loves best: teaching and mentoring his students. "Anything I can say about this man is not enough. This man is a combination of a lot of love, and a lot of dignity, and he has a lot to give back to people. It's unbelievable. Sometimes you think how can this man get energy, especially last semester, last year he had this surgery in his head, he was really struggling with his health. It really seemed in that moment, he just have this smile on his face, and my roomate graduated, he's from the same country as mine, and in the same period of time, that was his surgery. And the fact that he showed up to his graduation even though he was really, really sick. And my friends parents were here and they invited him, and he just, he's always there for you, no matter. Sick or not, he's there."
In life, there are always a select few persons who are simply unforgettable, who make others better people by being a part of their lives. It is not easy to pinpoint what makes such people so unique, so vital in the lives of their acquaintances. Uncle Bijan is the epitome of such a person, and as Dr. Jane Halonen says, "He is constantly a source of wonder." Uncle Bijan's extraordinary respect for human difference and selfless commitment to empowering the spirit of others are only a few of his seemingly endless gifts. Dr. Halonen reflects "Uncle Bijan stands out, he is driven by heart." As an instructor, father, husband, and mentor, Uncle Bijan is a true sentinel in the JMU community. The JMU community thanks Uncle Bijan.