Mehrimo Bakhtalieva, a freshman at Whitman College considering a degree in geology, has long known that she wanted to study abroad.
Opportunities are limited for most young people in Tajikistan, a mountainous nation in Central Asia, but especially for women, she said.
Young men who finish high school often migrate to Russia – Tajikistan’s GDP depends heavily on remittances from Russia – while young women are left in domestic roles.
“Some parts of the country are incredibly conservative, and higher education isn’t even an option for women,” Bakhtalieva said. “You get married, your husband moves and works in Russia, and you stay and take care of his parents.”
“I didn’t want to just get married and end up having kids and serving men like so many other women do.”
Bakhtalieva was never just about improving her own prospects either. When she started learning English towards the end of high school, she started a program to teach other girls the language.
But she couldn’t go straight from high school in her country to college in an English language one. For one thing, she couldn’t afford the SAT or the TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language), and even if she could, she still wasn’t good enough at English.
So, through United World Colleges, Bakhtalieva found an International Baccalaureate program that brings together students from around the world, many of whom now attend Whitman College as international students.
UWC offers three full scholarships to Tajik students each year, an incredibly competitive offer, and Bakhtalieva was chosen as the recipient.
“I’m pretty sure there were people who were great at English, some people who were really fluent, and I was blown away when I found out those people existed,” Bakhtalieva said. “But I think they looked at my service work and that made all the difference.”
She received a full scholarship to attend a UWC school in Karuizawa, Japan, a resort town in the mountains of Nagano Prefecture. For Bakhtalieva it was the chance of a lifetime. It was deeply troubling for her father.
“So he said, ‘You’re going so far away, and I’ve never had anything like that. Why can’t you be like your cousins or like the other girls I know?’
“But I really wanted this.” She said. “I told him this is the opportunity of a lifetime and I will do it.”
However, this determination in the face of resistance had the side effect of creating a high, perhaps unreasonable, expectation of success. On her second day in Japan, she was overwhelmed and intimidated.
“There have been many students who have spoken English from a very young age, even since birth, and I’m just coming out of nowhere trying to do one of the most rigorous academic programs in the world,” she said.
Two things kept her going: the urge to go forward and the refusal to go back.
“I know this sounds very personal, but I wanted to prove to my father that I could do it, and when I went back he would say to me, ‘Look, I told you you should have stayed.’ She said. “If I went back, I thought I’d end up like a lot of other women in my community, and I didn’t like that reality.”
As frightening as her new surroundings may be, it was also an incredible learning experience and she was surrounded by students from all over the world who showed genuine interest in her and her culture. She had grown up in a community where everyone shared the same religion, language, ethnicity, etc., but there was no majority at UWC.
“Everyone wanted to know where you’re from, what your culture was like, what you eat and if we can prepare it and eat it together,” she said. “The eagerness to learn was there”
Although there were some fantastic professors at Whitman College, the student body was not always as enthusiastic.
“People have their own little world and they’re just happy to live in it,” she said.
Bakhtalieva was scheduled to start in Whitman in the fall of 2021 but had trouble obtaining her visa, possibly due to the situation in Afghanistan, which borders Tajikistan.
“The United States Embassy will never tell you why, so it’s always a mystery, but it was an interesting case,” she said.
“Apparently it can also be common for people who come from a predominantly Muslim community, you know, they thought I could be a potential threat to US security.”
So she took a semester off and traveled back home to spend time with her family and to work on a project she had been working on for more than two years – helping other young people in her country to get higher education in to complete abroad.
“I felt incredibly privileged to have the opportunity to go to UWC, and a lot of girls in my community don’t have that opportunity, and neither do men,” she said.
Along with other institutions, she developed a program to help students from remote areas and low-income families and equip them with the skills to enter college. She and others trained university students to ensure the program could continue on a permanent basis, and it had continued through this summer.
Violent protests erupted in Tajikistan in May and the government reacted harshly, not only arresting many protesters but also shutting down various non-governmental organizations.
“It was like, ‘What if you’re a terrorist organization and you want to implicate our kids in something?’ She said, “It was just nonsense. And you feel small.”
Despite her frustration with her government and Tajikistan’s cultural expectations of women, Bakhtalieva’s love for her country is palpable.
She misses her family’s vegetable garden, the orchard with apricots and mulberries and cherries and peaches, the cow and the sheep. She misses the sambusa, a meat-filled pastry she sometimes makes for her friends at Whitman. She misses her family.
After college she will return to Tajikistan. She is considering a degree in geology, but regardless of career, she plans to work in sustainable energy.
Your country has thousands of glaciers, including Fedchenko, the largest in the world outside of the polar regions. These glaciers are melting rapidly due to climate change, and villages in remote parts of the country have been swept away by the resulting flooding.
“But I never really understood climate change until I left the country,” Bakhtalieva said. “My family, we never had a car. My grandparents never had a car. In some places in my country life has not changed for many years.
“But when I came to Japan, I understood. It made sense. This amount of stuff was overwhelming for me. It raised questions: Why do we have to bear the consequences for the actions of others? We don’t produce it, we don’t benefit from it, but we suffer.”
Whichever college major Bakhtalieva chooses, she knows she will return to Tajikistan to try to improve the lives of her people. She doesn’t expect to solve climate change, she said, but will do whatever it takes to stop its impact on the country she loves dearly, despite its shortcomings.