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One International Student's Fearless Journey

Brooke Burger

Courtesy of Nika Najafova
International Spirit - Sophomore Nika Najafova poses with the Weevil mascot after the Homecoming Parade. Najafova represented the International Club on the Homecoming Court.

  The first time Nigar “Nika” Najafova left her home in Baku, Azerbaijan, she ended up in Kansas. The energetic 17-year-old, wanting to study in the United States, went to Wichita, Kan., to live with a host family as a foreign exchange student.

   Najafova said, though her mother worried about her traveling alone for the first time and misses her now, she wanted her daughter to have the opportunity to travel.

   “She wants me to see the world,” Najafova said, “to step into the world and have experiences.”

Experienced Traveler

   After spending one year studying in the United States, Najafova said she knew she wanted to come back. While staying at home, Najafova attended an international meeting. At the meeting, she met a Rehyan Rzayev, a UAM student.

   Rzayev and Orkhan Rzayev helped Najafova through the application process, which proves an arduous process. Najafova said the American Embassy required her and her parents to complete a lot of paperwork, including forms from schools, doctors and banks.

   “They’re just really picky,” she said of the Embassy. “They ask me so many personal questions, but because they don’t really know, they have to check you out.”

   Najafova also said the exchange program did not allow her to choose where she attended school in the United States. U.S. schools look through international student applications and choose the students. Yet she said none of this really bothered her.

   “I just wanted to (come here); it didn’t really matter where,” she said. “I like it here. I have the things I need to live and friends, and that’s enough.”

   Najafova traveled over 6,500 miles in a little over a day to UAM to begin the Fall 2006 – Spring 2007 semester. Since first coming to the United States, Najafova experienced several ups and downs at the airports during her travels.

   From six to nine hour delays to canceled flights and ticket problems, Najafova knows the hectic system requires patience, good humor and, occasionally, quick feet.

   “I had to stop in Paris one time,” Najafova said. “And it was crazy.” 

   She had only an hour to switch flights, which the size of the airport can make difficult, and to make it worse, the airline misplaced her luggage. This sent her on a wild goose chase, running back and forth through the huge airport.

   Finally locating her luggage, Najafova, no taller than five feet, had to run back across the airport with her luggage and catch her flight with less than 30 minutes to spare. After that, her mother said no more stops in Paris.

   Though travel has its ups and downs, Najafova definitely plans to continue the journey. So far she’s traveled to six states in the United States and hopes to travel more once she graduates, in the states and overseas.

   “It’s education and life experience because you basically change everything jumping from one culture to another,” she said. “You learn how to talk to people and become more independent and open minded.”

Courtesy of Nika Najafova
Sea Play - Azerbaijan native Nika Najafova plays in the Caspian Sea near her home town of Baku.

Student of Life

   Now a sophomore, Najafova studies business administration, participates in the International Club on campus and recently received a spot on the 2007 Homecoming Court in October.

   The International Club nominated Najafova for the court during Homecoming week. When Najafova won a spot on the court, she called her parents to share the good news. Since Azerbaijan schools do not celebrate homecomings, to explain to her parents what the good news was, she first had to Google the term.

   She said she wanted to join the court so people could get to know her as an international student and because it’s part of the culture here.

   “I felt very special,” she said of her nomination and election.

   In addition to her business studies, Najafova said she also likes studying other cultures, a main reason for her joining the International Club. She said she really enjoyed participating in the cultural display the club hosted in April.

   “I want to teach people about my home,” she said.

   Najafova said the International Club, formed in 2006, helps international students develop the skills to teach people about other countries and gives national students the opportunity to learn about other cultures through projects like the display.

   In addition to the life experience, Najafova said she also enjoys studying at UAM for the educational experiences. The U.S. education system differs greatly from the Azeri education system in the secondary and post-secondary schools.

   Najafova said U.S. education allows more freedom by allowing students to choose the subjects they take; whereas, in Azerbaijan students can only take what the schools require. Dormitories also allow American students more freedom.

   In Azerbaijan, children stay with their parents until they marry. The colleges and universities do not have dormitories because most students are unmarried and still live at home with their parents.

   She said she likes the school systems here, mostly because the teachers seem to love their jobs. She noted that may be because U.S. teachers receive higher wages than Azeri teachers, but her teachers back home more stern.

   One disadvantage she noticed about the U.S. education system is the lack of cultural and global studies. While U.S. schools do have courses pertaining to these studies, Najafova said they tend to focus more on American history. In Azerbaijan, the schools require more in-depth cultural studies.

   “Here you see all kinds of people because America is like a big messy soup of all cultures,” she said. “You have so many opportunities to learn, but not everyone takes advantage of it.”

  In addition to the differences in education, Azerbaijan and the United States and Baku and Monticello differ vastly in other areas.

Not in Kansas Anymore

Courtesy of

Map of Azerbaijan

   Located on the Caspian Sea, Azerbaijan is adjacent to Georgia, Russia and Iran. Nestled in a country of about 8 million people, the capital Baku is home to over 1.8 million people. Baku is also the country’s largest city and port.

   When she tells her friends she’s studying in America, they always ask if she’s in New York or Washington D.C. She said when she tells them Arkansas, they never know where she’s talking about. She said her uncle often jokes with her because she went from Kansas to Arkansas.

   Despite coming from a thriving city to small-town America, Najafova said she enjoys the aspects a smaller town like Monticello has to offer students. Though big cities offer more entertainment, small towns allow for more time to study.

   “I think living in a small city is pretty cool, especially for going to college,” she said. “Smaller towns are good for college students because they get close to each other and have time to study.”

   While she adapted to the slower pace of Southeast Arkansas, Najafova said she expected something completely different when she came to America because of what she watched on television. Because of the war, television only shows the negative side of other countries on both sides, she said.

   “TV America is like ‘Woo Hoo,’” she said, waving her hands wildly in the air, “but it’s not the same.

   You have to live there and experience it to really know. You have to come here and live to see how people act and think.”

   She said from food and board games, the two countries differ greatly, and she has learned a lot by living in the United States. One of the main differences Najafova saw existed between the American family and the Azeri family.

   Since children live with their parents until they marry, they spend more time at home. As a result, they rarely hang out with their friends outside of school and spend more time with their families. She said her mother even worried some the first time she went to a sleepover in America.

   Najafova said her large family remains very close despite the distance that sometimes separates them. She said she is particularly close to her grandfather, grandmother and aunts. It is common for her family to gather together at the family summer house for a weekend or to go camping.

   She said, whereas her family gets together whenever possible, her host family only gathered together on holidays. The differences between families may have a link to the differences among teenagers in America and Azerbaijan.

   As Najafova pointed out, Americas gain freedom at age 18, if not sooner, and Azeri children remain with their parents until they marry.

   She said in America it seems common for people to get boyfriends and girlfriends in high school, but in Azerbaijan, this would be less socially acceptable. Most girls in Azerbaijan wait until they go to a university to start dating. It is considered respectful to her husband if she had few boyfriends before marriage.

   From her experiences in the United States, Najafova said she sees more young adults who drink, experiment with drugs or get pregnant. The young adults in Azerbaijan do not have drinking parties like the ones here, she said.

   Teenagers rarely get to work before they graduate high school in Azerbaijan as well. She said she would work if she lived in Azerbaijan, but her parents would prefer to care for her since she would live with them.

   With the freedom to hang out with friends and date at a young age, Najafova said American teenagers think more independently. Being able to leave the house at 18, also leads to a stronger sense of independence, she said.

   “Here you are free after 18,” she said. “You get to develop your own world.”

   She said it’s different for every person, but she has enjoyed her adventure in the states and likes the independent lifestyle college offers.

The Search for Faith

   Starting this year, Najafova started independently practicing the Islamic religion. She worships five times a day, and has to undergo a cleansing ritual before she says her prayers.

   More than 94 percent of the residents in Baku practice a form of Islam, but in Monticello, Najafova finds herself in the minority on campus with five religious organizations, all of which come from Christian practices. Within the town and the state, it is not much different.

   “When I came here, I was like ‘Whoa, churches are everywhere!’” she said.

   Though Najafova said she enjoys attending different churches in the area for the experience and to learn something new, she said it can be difficult because she has no one to share her religion with and no one to help her when she doesn’t understand something.

   “I wish we had some mosques close to us so we could worship with each other,” she said.

   She described the mosques in Azerbaijan as beautiful and majestic. When she attended a mosque in Kansas, she said it was different because it is a cultural element of her country. Despite not having a mosque nearby, Najafova continues her studies through books at the library and her mother’s advice and guidance when they talk.

The Journey Continues

   An energetic and optimistic woman who loves to study business, religion and culture, Nika Najafova searches for the most in life wherever she goes. When asked what her hobbies were, she said, “Everything!”

   After she graduates, she plans combine her business degree with her passion for different cultures. Though she would like to stay in America to open a business in another state, she said she would also like opening a business in Azerbaijan.

   “I want to bring home here or take here home,” she said.

   Najafova said Azerbaijan has elements Americans would enjoy and vice versa. She said if she never got the chance to travel, she would not have thought of the idea to share cultures through a business.

   “This is a good experience for the future because I can see the difference between places and combine some things,” she explained. “You wouldn’t think about that if you stayed in one place and never saw the differences.”


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ŠThe Voice 2007
Revised 09/17/2007 08:12:03 PM —