Volume IX, Issue 4 | August 28, 2023

An Iron Will to Sing

As a child growing up in Tehran, Kam Vazir always felt like a misfit. He found refuge in the arts. Fast forward a dozen years—he no longer feels like a misfit, and sings with confidence.

SMC in Focus

Growing up in Tehran, Kam Vazir always felt like a misfit.  

At school, he was bullied by classmates and mocked by teachers. At home, he endured emotional and physical abuse from his strict parents. Friendless and alienated, he found refuge in the arts. Kam composed poems—nearly 300 to date, always in English—and paired them with original melodies playing in his head. When he allowed himself to sing in public, it drew stares and sharp rebukes.  

“Everyone thought I was a freak. I would get made fun of for all my interests,” says the recent SMC graduate, who transfers to Columbia University in January. “At school they would ask me: ‘Why do you walk like that? Why do you talk like that? Why do you listen to that kind of music? What are these books that you’re reading?’” 

Kam had no answers to these hostile questions. It was only much later that he understood his sexual orientation might be a factor.   

“At 9, I had no clue I was gay,” he says. “When I was 14 or 15, I thought I could change it through practice or pray it away.” Later, he visited pharmacies asking for pills to help “a friend” overcome “very unnatural thoughts and attempted conversion therapy.  

His only joy came from engaging with American pop culture. He went from “Hannah Montana” episodes to Taylor Swift music videos, then Avril Lavigne, The 1975, Pink Floyd and Evanescence. Using VPN to bypass Iran’s internet filters, he closely followed the American Billboard charts and downloaded pirated tracks, which he sang and recorded on his iPhone. He also watched popular movies and TV show. Through these online activities he picked up English “very naturally and organically” and today speaks fluently.  

With no friends who shared his interests, Kam practiced conversational English alone. Dubbing his vocals over YouTube karaoke videos, he’d critique his own performances alone. 


Fast forward a dozen years, and Kam, now 27, no longer feels like a misfit. He sings with confidence. “I also paint, and I do photography. I love all aspects of art,” he says. For more than three years, he has created content and graphics for SMC’s web services team as a student worker. Last February, he organized an art festival at SMC in solidarity with worldwide protests around the death of Mahsa Amin. Presented in partnership with the Student Equity Center, the event featured music, photography and art challenging Iran’s mandatory hijab laws.  

Standing in Solidarity with Iranencapsulates Kam’s belief that “artistic and cultural work is much more impactful than political work.” The promotional video for the event represented Kam’s debut as a filmmaker.  


Kam’s journey from Tehran to Morningside Heights is inspirational but also painful.  

“As the only grandson on my father’s side to carry on the family name, I was under intense pressure to excel,” he explains. His prosperous family runs a flour mill as well as several other successful businesses. To his parents, Kam’s artistic sensibility seemed frivolous, not a source of pride but of embarrassment. 

“My family was completely disappointed in me. I was viewed as a lost cause,” he says. 

Iranian high schools are divided into learning tracks, and Kam’s exacting parents pressured him to choose a hard science pathway.  

Though clever with computers, he struggled with physics and had a “love-hate relationship with math.” Dyslexia and severe attention deficit disorder—learning differences that were only diagnosed in his mid-20s—compounded Kam’s difficulties. Every report card he brought home was met by angry yelling and sometimes worse  

By sheer will, Kam managed to get admitted to Islamic Azad University. He studied software engineering at the Tehran Central branch for two years, but the coursework was all-consuming and his heart just wasn’t in it. Living under his father’s roof felt suffocating. Suspecting that Kam might be gay, his father imposed a strict curfew. 

“I was highly monitored. My father installed a tracking device on my car,” he says. The only place Kam could safely sing was in his car—so he sang his heart out on the road to the university and his job at the family’s flour mill. You can hear the car engine and highway noise on the tracks he recorded during that time. 

Realizing he had no future in his homeland (“They still hang gay people in Iran,” he says), Kam decided to make a clean break in 2017 

He came to Los Angeles with his father on what was supposed to be a routine trip. When Kam announced that he wouldn’t be going back to Iran, his enraged father predicted he couldn’t live independently and cut off all support.  

Kam took a customer service job at Macy’s and spent the next two years “really getting to know myself and healing.In 2019, he felt ready for a change. 


It took courage to enroll at SMC after the bullying he’d endured in high school. “I thought, ‘Oh, my God, I’m going to put myself through that again?’” But he was desperate for the arts education he’d been denied his whole life.   

He quickly found his voice in a vocal performance class. Later he would study guitar and piano too. The first time he auditioned for the elite Applied Music program, he was rejected. But on his second try, he made the cut.  

Though he had little training, “there was something in Kam’s singing—a deep passion and longing to express. It was captivating,” says Janelle DeStefano, an associate professor of music and director of SMC Opera Theatre. 

Kam found that department chair Brian Driscoll wasn’t exaggerating when he told audiences before Applied Music concerts that “these students not only study, they read, write, play, breathe, eat, chew, sleep and live music.”  

“That’s pretty much what it was,” Kam says.  

In the middle of his full-body immersion in vocal arts, Kam fell in love. It was his first serious relationship, and when it ended about a year later, Kam fell apart.  

“I was suicidal for a while,” he recalls. “I was in therapy twice a week and on medication.”   

It was career counselor Jenna Gausman who first suggested that Kam consider transferring to Columbia. His 3.8 GPA made him a strong candidate, she said, and he was close to having the necessary credits.  

“And I was like, ‘Me? The person who got terrible grades in high school and is pushing himself hard to get up every day? Me at an Ivy League university?’”  

Finishing the Applied Music program would have taken another two years, so Kam rechanneled his energies into meeting the IGETC requirements for transfer. He graduated in June with an AA in Arts and Humanities with a focus on mass communication/media studies. He will be a film and media studies major at Columbia. 

A financial setback has forced Kam to postpone his matriculation date to spring 2024. As of early August, he hadn’t found anyone to co-sign his student loan. He continues to hope some “philanthropic altruist” will step up with their John Hancock even as he researches creative alternatives for financing his move to New York.  


Kam will be back at SMC in the fall for Psychology 1, Sociology 1, and Economics 1—maxing out the transfer units he can carry over to Columbia. He’s also signed up for Photography 1 and Digital Music Production “just for my own amusement and enjoyment,” he says. “While I no longer am studying music, I’m still recording music every day.”   

His dream job: to be an entertainment executive whose creative decisions can “make the world better.”   

Looking back on his time at SMC, Kam feels grateful. “The patience and kindness that I received from the faculty—especially the music faculty—is just beyond anything I had ever imagined. They encouraged me. They told me things that I had never heard, like ‘You sound lovely.’ At first I didn’t believe them. But they never laughed me off. They didn’t critique me in a way that would discourage me.” 

Janelle has nothing but kind words for Kam. “As a voice teacher,” she says, “I have the pleasure of helping people find and open their unique voices. This journey sometimes leads to a career in music, and sometimes leads to new roads. I am so thrilled that Kam found his voice in film and will pursue that at Columbia.” 

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