Born in Afghanistan and raised during Taliban rule to a family without much education, Sal Parsa didn’t have many options: by age 12, he was going to school half the day and working the other half sewing clothes.
“My destiny was to become a tailor, or a mechanic,” he says.
But in 2001, something happened: American soldiers showed up in his hometown of Herat, seizing control from the Taliban regime. Sal was fascinated by the men, as they walked through the city with their guns handing out candy to children, and he wanted to find out more about them.
“I was a kid, so I wasn’t seen as a threat and I could approach them and try to talk to them,” says Parsa, Haas School of Business MBA '18. “They looked scary at first but they were friendly and kind. Those first encounters were what began to change my life.”
His outgoing curiosity, along with his drive to get an education beyond the severe limitations he had faced, soon sent him down a winding path that ultimately led him to UC Berkeley-Haas — where he is now an aspiring entrepreneur.
Books, not bombs
Growing up under the Taliban, Parsa's access to education was mostly limited to religious books. All he had ever known was poverty and war: his young life had spanned the Soviet occupation and withdrawal, the civil war that raged in its wake, and the Taliban’s rigid control. But with the arrival of the Americans, things opened up. Now, there were new books in the library and classes to take. So he took full advantage, going to study English after he was done with work at night.
Parsa remembers when a group of American men visited his high school looking for top students to apply for an exchange program.
“I thought it was a hoax,” he says. “My parents weren’t wealthy and we had no power; usually this kind of opportunity was given to the sons of the warlords, ministers, or top top people.”
But it all became real when — after an exhaustive series of exams and interviews — he and three others were selected from more than 1,000 students vetted by the State Department. They were invited to spend their junior year at American high schools through the Youth Exchange and Study (YES) program in Afghanistan, offered for the first time in Afghanistan.
And so, in 2004, Parsa found himself living with a host family in Plattsburgh, a small college town in Upstate New York. It was a different world, but Parsa — already a bit of an overachiever — was undaunted.
“I brought these huge dictionaries from Afghanistan — English to Farsi, Farsi to English,” says Parsa, a native Persian speaker who was learning English as a third language. “Those dictionaries were my buddies. I used to record my classes, then go home and listen to them, and use the books to translate.”
Parsa immersed himself in American culture. His host mother was an Air Force Veteran who treated him like one of her own and his host brother was in the Navy — a great excuse for the family to travel around and watch Navy football games. His soccer prowess was an easy entree to the high school sports and social scenes.
As part of the exchange program, he served as a youth cultural ambassador, visiting and talking to high schools, colleges, and churches, and even traveling to the White House to meet high-level officials.
That helped when, at age 17, he returned to Afghanistan and worked as a translator and cultural liaison for the US military — a period that Parsa describes tersely as “very intense times.” By then, the war was in its fourth year, and the Taliban was attempting to regain control.
As a translator, Parsa risked his life. “There was a $5000 prize for the head of a translator or anyone working or helping the Americans. I couldn't trust anyone,” he says.
Parsa recently opened up about those years for the first time at a Haas Story Salon — an event where MBA students share personal stories with classmates, with the understanding that everything said stays in the room.
“Sal connected with every person in the room that night by sharing his narrative,” says classmate Greg Keiser, MBA '18.
It was hard to talk about some things, says Parsa, who is still careful about what he’ll say publicly about the experience. But his trust in his Haas cohort made him willing to do it. “This would not have ever happened without these people,” he says.
Return to the US
Parsa considers himself incredibly lucky. After two years working for the military in Afghanistan, he was invited to attend Walsh University in Ohio, where he was a new quantity for the small, Catholic school.
“I was the only Muslim student living on campus,” he says. “During Ramadan, the cafeteria closed before I could break my fast, so I ate Ramen noodles or fast food. But by the second year, they made me a boxed dinner.”
Parsa was chosen to give a speech at his 2014 naturalization ceremony.
After graduation, he worked for large manufacturing company in Canton, Ohio, and was considering a career in US intelligence when a mentor suggested he look into an MBA. While he got offers from several top schools, he says Haas offered a combination of first-rate faculty, connections to an entrepreneurial ecosystem, and a great location.
And when he got a call from full-time MBA Admissions Director Morgan Bernstein, he hung up feeling like Haas really “got” him.
Bernstein recalls what stood out about Parsa: “It was clear that not only is Sal someone who embodies our four Haas Defining Principles, but that his life experience allows him to bring a truly unique, and valuable, perspective to our community.”
Parsa’s background and struggles have shaped his attitude and approach to life; he puts “problems” like a heavy course of study into perspective. “Why should I worry? Why should I complain?” he asks.
After a just a few months at Haas, Parsa says he knows he’s in the right place: there’s nothing about his life right now that stressed him out, even though he’s combining the full-time MBA program with a leadership role as the president of the data science club, a deep-dive into data science, and a hard push with classmate Greg Keiser on a startup idea for a career guidance platform. That’s on top of the fact he got married last summer.
But Parsa is ready for every opportunity he can find — at Haas, at UC Berkeley, or anywhere else.
“Sometimes I think, ‘I shouldn’t sleep,’” he says.