The Current

Posthumous degrees for U of A students killed in Iran plane crash a reminder of talent lost, says graduate

The University of Alberta has awarded posthumous degrees to five students killed when Iran shot down Flight PS752 in January, while the loved ones of those who died renew demand for answers.

Posthumous degrees awarded to students killed when Iran shot down plane

Five students who died on Flight PS752 in January have been honoured with posthumous degrees by the University of Alberta. Clockwise from left: Elnaz Nabiyi, Saba Saadat, Nasim Rahmanifar, and Arash Pourzarabi and Pouneh Gorji. (Canadian Press; Supplied by Daniel Ghods-Esfahani; Submitted by Sina Esfandiarpour; Submitted by Amir Forouzandeh)

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As the COVID-19 pandemic cancels graduation ceremonies around the world, the University of Alberta has awarded posthumous degrees to five students killed in the Ukrainian Airlines flight shot down by Iran in January.

Asal Andarzipour, the president of the university's Iranian Students Association, called it an act of "remembrance" for her five peers, and the hopes and dreams they had.

"It's also about the unexpectedness of life, and I think it's a good lesson to take advantage of the moment while we are here," she told The Current's Matt Galloway.

Iran admitted its military unintentionally shot down Ukraine International Airlines Flight PS752 on Jan. 8, killing all 176 people aboard, including 55 Canadian citizens and 30 permanent residents of Canada.

An investigation into the crash has been hampered by the COVID-19 pandemic, and delays in Iran handing over the black boxes of the downed plane.

160 days since Iran airplane crash | Hamed Esmaeilion

3 years ago
Duration 6:20
Hamed Esmaeilion on how families of victims of the Ukrainian International Airlines Flight 752 crash are forming an association to seek answers and justice.

The five posthumous degrees were awarded on June 12 to Pouneh Gorji, Arash Pourzarabi, Elnaz Nabiyi, Nasim Rahmanifar, and Saba Saadat.

Andarzipour said the degrees serve as a reminder of the immense talent and potential that Canada lost when the plane was shot down. 

"We need more recognition and raising awareness of the tragedy," she said.

"This is not over and it's just a way to be reminded of the loss that we've experienced, and what Canada and all the countries involved in it can do." 

A Toronto vigil to some of the people who died in the crash, erected in the days after Iran shot down the plane in January. (Rozenn Nicolle/Radio-Canada)

While Andarzipour didn't meet all five of the students in person, she knew of them through her community. 

"We are a small community and we are close to each other, and a lot of our life stories are similar," she said.

"So I personally was feeling that I could be on that plane. It was very close to me."

Pandemic an 'opportunity' for new ideas

In the shadow of the tragedy, Andarzipour graduates this year with her second master's degree in the history of art, design and visual culture (her first was in industrial design).

Originally from Iran, she has been living and studying in Canada for several years, after falling in love with the university's faculty and education (and even Canadian weather, she joked.)

Like thousands of students, she won't be able to take part in an in-person graduation ceremony, or celebrate with the student body. 

But she thinks the pandemic could open new opportunities for the curatorial work she wants to get involved with, as businesses and galleries move online.

"The pandemic has been kind of an opportunity to test out new ideas," she told Galloway.

Nobel Prize winner Donna Strickland's commencement speech to the Class of 2020

3 years ago
Duration 3:15
Nobel Prize-winning physicist and University of Waterloo professor Donna Strickland says there are plenty of opportunities for graduates to change the world amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

She has also been volunteering with a new group, the Association of Families of Flight PS752 Victims, set up by those demanding answers for the loss of their loved ones.

As a leader in her community, she says the tragedy has taught her a lot, particularly about resilience and finding strength in community.

"I had to at the same time keep myself together, and also be supportive of others and provide service," she said.

"It's been challenging, but I grew up a lot."

She said one thing she learned was to stand up for what is right, and keep asking questions.

Asal Andarzipour graduates from the University of Alberta this year with a master's degree in the history of art, design and visual culture. (Submitted by Asal Andarzipour)

"I think the reason that we are a little bit slow in making the world a better place is that we are not asking questions, that we are ... silent in difficult situations," she said.

"We have to stand up and say that this is not right."

Written by Padraig Moran. Produced by Samira Mohyeddin, Idella Sturino, Anne Penman, Suzanne Dufresne, Julie Crysler and Joana Draghici.

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