Faculty & Staff Profiles

Staff Spotlight: Admissions Director Victoria Muradi
Posted 12/01/2016 05:00PM

Victoria Muradi’s earliest memory is hearing banging at the door of her Kabul home and opening it to see a blond, blue-eyed Russian soldier, Kalashnikov rifle slung over his shoulder, looking for her father.

Muradi was 3 years old when her father fled Afghanistan in the dark of night, leaving his wife, son and two daughters. It was 1980, the Soviets had invaded Afghanistan and her father, who was politically active and pro-democracy, was on a death list. The soldiers were convinced the family was hiding him, and it became so unsafe that the family also fled.

“My mother didn’t bathe us for a week so we wouldn’t seem like city people, we would seem more like peasants. We were told we shouldn’t talk. Our grammar, accent would give us away because we had been educated. We left by bus and then by foot and on donkey, went into Pakistan and through Sri Lanka to the U.S. My mother was doing that with three children, 3, 5 and 12. I think about that now with my own two children.”

Muradi has come a long way, from a kindergartner who could not say “hello” in English to a Smith College- and Harvard-educated administrator who has served as Durham Academy’s director of admissions and financial aid since 2007.

Her family had led a comfortable life in Afghanistan — Muradi’s father owned a clothing factory and her mother taught school — and the family’s world was turned upside down when they fled. Father, mother and three children reunited in New York in 1982, sharing a one-bedroom apartment in a Queens building that was home to dozens of Afghan families.

“My parents had taken English in school but they had to start from scratch here, taking night classes while trying to keep a family going — a hard life. Now when I go to a gas station or a Dunkin Donuts and see someone from overseas, I think they might have been a doctor or an engineer back where they were from.”

Her father, who as the oldest male in his family held a position of high status in Afghanistan, came to the U.S. and worked as a busboy. Her mother also worked in restaurants, making her way from dishwasher to waitress as her English improved.

“My father had this tremendous loss of dignity. He had nothing when he came here, he had lost everything, his family, what it meant to be somebody in a culture, he had to figure all that out here. I was too young to get it, now I really get it. He sacrificed a ton for us.”

The family moved to South Florida when Muradi was in middle school. Her father worked his way up to managing restaurants, and her parents were able to buy a small restaurant.

“It was the first thing they actually owned. They had a small mom-and-pop shop with breakfast and lunch. That’s what put us through college. They didn’t retire until three years ago. That’s how they made it.”

Muradi worked at the family restaurant each summer, but during the school year it was all about working hard to make good grades.

“The biggest thing for my parents, that whole loss of dignity, was I wouldn’t have a job that forced me to stand on my feet and I didn’t have to work with my hands. That was huge for them. The first time my dad ever saw a desk that I had, he was literally weeping. The whole focus for me was that I would work really, really hard. Their job was to have the restaurant and they would provide for us. My job was to be in school and get good grades. It was a typical immigrant experience, was very common in immigrant cultures. In Afghanistan, most girls won’t get that same sort of push from their parents, but my dad was very much saying that was the case for all four of us. So I did very well in school and got myself into an IB [International Baccalaureate] program in a local public school.”

Muradi’s parents expected her to go to community college, but her high school guidance counselor encouraged her to look at colleges that would be more academically challenging, and she navigated the college admissions process entirely on her own.

“I figured out how to take the SATs, I got all my parents’ tax papers together and did financial aid and admissions. I had no help from them at all. … That was my first taste of admissions, actually. I’m so grateful they even let me do that. I was the first person in my family to go away for college. I was the first girl, for sure, who ever lived away. Lots of people gave questioning looks at my parents, how could you let your daughter do that? It is so common for us to have a multi-generational family. You are with your family until you get married.

“I couldn’t get my parents to even bite at the idea of my going away unless I went to a women’s college. I applied to Smith and Bryn Mawr and Wellesley. It was more affordable for me to go to Smith than to Florida State or any public schools. They gave me a massive scholarship, and that was really it for me.”

Going away to college meant huge social changes for Muradi.

“It was a tremendous amount of freedom. I grew up in Florida and was not allowed to wear shorts, not allowed to have any kind of relationship, especially on the phone, which was the way to have a relationship. I couldn’t talk to boys on the phone. Just imagine a very traditional Muslim upbringing. My parents were very strict, I didn’t go to prom, I couldn’t date. Then I got to college and I had to ability to come home late, didn’t have to answer to anybody, so it was pretty exciting just from that angle.”

But college was also academically challenging.

“College was really hard for me because people were so much more prepared for college than I was. I had gone from making all As and being one of the top kids in my class to having kids come from schools like DA and boarding schools and prep schools who knew how to advocate for themselves. I did not have any of that. They knew how to talk about themselves with confidence, they had a sense of who they were. I was just doing the work. It was hard academically. My first semester it was particularly challenging to do the academics at a pretty tough school and to have the freedom that I was just starting to taste.”

Muradi discovered Latina literature while she was at Smith, and it helped her understand her own experience.

“I had little in common with the women culturally, but I got to read Mexican Americans, Cuban Americans, Sandra Cisneros, all these women writing about what it was like to straddle two cultures. No one else had ever conveyed that to me. … I fell in love with the idea of literature about being bicultural. I don’t think I’d ever even put it to name what it was that I’d gone through.”

Muradi’s scholarship required her to have an on-campus job. She worked in the college kitchen her first year, then got a job in the admissions office, putting together packets for prospective applicants. She progressed from working in the basement to sitting in on admissions interviews to interviewing applicants.

Muradi graduated from Smith in three years and stayed for what would have been her senior year, living in a dorm as a residence advisor and doing four interviews a day for the admissions office.

“That’s literally how I started in admissions and working with students. My parents would have preferred that I come down to Florida and help run the restaurant. Their hope was I would go to college and come back home. That was a big surprise to them that I didn’t want to.”

She was intrigued by admissions work, but her boss encouraged her to leave Smith to find out whether she wanted to do admissions for the sake of admissions or whether she just loved Smith. A year in the admissions office at nearby Western New England College confirmed that admissions was the career for her and Muradi decided to pursue a graduate degree in higher education.

She spent a year in the Harvard master’s in education program — taking classes in everything from student affairs to admissions to governance, strategic planning and trustees — and that’s where she met Jeff Carpenter, a fellow graduate student who would become her husband.

“We had to do practicums at Harvard as part of our courses, and I did two practicums that made me realize I love admissions work. One was at A Better Chance organizing orientation, and my second was working in the admission office at Harvard College interviewing kids.”

At Harvard, Muradi experienced “excitement in the people from all over the world, living in a dorm with people from the Kennedy School, divinity school, business school and the ed school. I loved being around young, excited, bright and super-motivated people. But I realized I did not want to be in New England.” She came south as assistant dean of admissions at the University of Virginia; was director of admissions at Chatham Hall, an all-girls boarding school in southern Virginia; and is in her 10th year as director of admissions and financial aid at Durham Academy.

Muradi sees the same sort of energy and excitement at Durham Academy as she did at Harvard.

“I think that’s exactly what keeps me at DA. I feel that way about our administration. Everybody is at the top of their game in this school. … Everyone cares and is doing their best and is super motivated to be better and I like that.”

She has held the DA admissions post longer than anyone else.

“Ten years is a long time to stay in one school, but it’s not getting old yet and I really still love what I’m doing. It’s different every single day. It’s seasonal work, there’s an ebb and a flow. You get to start the school year and see how excited and jazzed everyone is, gear up for the recruiting season and just by the time recruiting gets old you’re reviewing applications and then you’re making all these people really, really happy and then you’re getting to see them transitioned into the school.”

Muradi especially relates to helping kids and families who never imagined attending a school like DA. It reminds her of her own experience navigating college admissions on her own.

“It’s great to work with legacies and siblings, but there are kids who this is going to change the entire course of their life. They never thought they were going to go to college and they are, or they never thought a school like this would be attainable for them because of income and it is. That is the absolute best part.” Each year, Muradi helps award $2 million in need-based financial aid.

She has led hundreds of tours of Durham Academy, “but every single time I’m floored by going in and seeing what our students are doing or seeing what the teachers have up. I just went to first grade and first-graders were doing VoiceThreads in Caroline Petrow’s class. Upstairs, Lyn Streck was talking about something new she wants to do to introduce Bernoulli’s principle. That’s just today. No one tour is the same, no one classroom feels the same. It’s kind of interesting to think about these kids we’ve brought in and how they get that every day, how they get these opportunities every day. I love it, it never gets old. The people that we have are so excited about what they are doing. It’s hard for that not to feel contagious.”

Muradi makes a conscious effort to leave work behind when she is with her own children, 3-year-old Mateen and 18-month-old Lyla.

“I want to be a really present force for my kids, so I try not to be on my phone and I try to be active. From the time I leave here until the time they are in bed, I try to spend as much time as possible with them. I play with them, we’re on the floor, we go to playgrounds, the library.”

Early morning is the time she reserves for herself.

“I wake up at 4:45 every morning and hit the gym at 5. You could call me a gym rat. I love the gym, it’s my escape. Three times a week I do a boot camp-type class. The other days I run or lift weights. I work out from 5 to 6:30 most mornings, then come home, shower, get my kids up and head out for school. I drop them off, come here and then I can be with them in the evenings until they go to sleep.”

That doesn’t leave time for much else. “I don’t watch TV. I cook, I do yoga and I’m also in bed by 9:30.”

The family moved this fall to a new house they built near Hillsborough — a location that’s more convenient for both Muradi and her husband, a professor at Elon — so she’s also been busy making it feel like home.

While it may seem like she doesn’t have a minute to spare, Muradi is fueled by the fact that she gets to watch the students she often initially meets as Preschoolers develop and grow into incredible young adults by the time they reach high school.

“… I get to give opportunities to kids. … There are lots of kids here who I feel we are so lucky to have them at the school, so lucky they found us.”

An independent, coeducational day school, pre-kindergarten through grade 12.
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