LANCASTER — Isabelle Saber, Antelope Valley College’s new Vice President of Academic Affairs, started her new job earlier this month in the midst of the ongoing global pandemic.
With learning shifted online and the college campus closed to most students due to safety protocols, Saber splits her time between home and the office.
“It’s been great; people are very great and welcoming and the college is in really good shape,” Saber said in a telephone call. “The president has been wonderful and I’m just very grateful to be here.”
Saber looks to ensure the safe return of students to the campus once the pandemic is over. She also wants to meet the needs of the community and the local industries, ensuring AV College has cutting-edge programs in terms of technology and preparation to enter the workforce in whatever area they want.
“That’s the beauty of the community college system; we have so many different avenues and so many ways to help students reach their goal,” Saber said.
Saber grew up in a bicultural/bilingual family. She was born in Iran to an Armenian mother and an Azerbaijani father. Both of her parents ended up in the Middle East as children because of wars and ethnic cleansing in Russia. Her parents put her in a French school, so she was exposed to three languages growing up.
“English was a bit later,” Saber said. “When we immigrated to the States, it became my primary language because that’s what I spend 99% of my day speaking,” Saber said.
Saber was educated in French, so in a way that was her first language, she said. She also speaks Armenian and Farsi. She has a decent understanding of Spanish.
“I didn’t think about being multilingual because when you’re a child you don’t pose those questions; you just do what your parents tell you to do, how they speak with you,” Saber said. “It was never a conscious choice on my part to be multilingual it was what my parents kind of decided. I’m very grateful for it.”
Saber obtained a student visa and moved to Paris from Iran. She studied at the Sorbonne, where she received a degree in French literature. Her parents remained in Iran. As things worsened during the Iran-Iraq War, they had to get out. The new regime in Iran considered their marriage invalid because they were bicultural.
“They were put in grave danger and they managed to escape,” Saber said.
The family applied for asylum with France and the United States. They were admitted for both immediately.
“My parents decided that we would come to the United States instead of staying in France, so we came here in 1987,” Saber said.
Her parents lost everything they had. He father, who had worked for 38 years, lost his pension. Her mother had worked since she was 17 years old.
“We were a comfortable family when I was growing up,” Saber said. “All of a sudden, we were dirt poor when we arrived here. I had to start working right away and helping my family out and putting myself through school. It stiffens your backbone and makes you understand other people’s plight a lot better. I’m very grateful for that experience as odd as it seems because I get to understand our students a lot better having been where they are.”
She began her studies at Glendale Community College, where she remained for 26 years in the consecutive roles of student, tutor, supplemental instruction leader, classified staff, adjunct instructor and full-time faculty. She subsequently transitioned to administrative roles in other districts, where she served in the capacities of instructional dean and vice president of academic affairs.
Saber completed her undergraduate and graduate degrees in mathematics at the University of California, Los Angeles. She is an “all but dissertation” in higher education leadership at the University of Southern California.
Saber’s trajectory toward an educational career began in first grade. She had a classmate who she now realizes had some kind of learning disability. The friend struggled in school; her parents worried their daughter would be held back and not advance to the next class.
“Since she and I had become best friends I took it upon myself to tutor her all the time so that she could advance with me,” Saber said. “Because I was so close to her, I didn’t want her to be left behind. So I started teaching at the age of six just to make sure that this friend of mine would be able to keep up with the rest of the class and we would be able to remain classmates and close friends.”
Throughout her school years Saber spent two or three hours a day on the phone helping other students out.
“I guess it was something that I became good at,” Saber said. “Serving other people and helping others learn was such a high. I realized that when somebody else learns something, I would be even happier about than when I learned something myself. Their achievement made me feel so incredibly happy and joyous. Their success was better than even my own success.
“I love that feeling. I love the ability to be able to help and be there for other people, and that’s a fire that’s still in me every day. That’s what makes me get up in the morning, to see people succeed and achieve their potential. There’s nothing more pleasurable for me.”