I received my UGRAD scholarship when the experiences of my early youth were deeply engraved in my world view: the earthquake of 1988, the collapse of the Soviet Union, the political unrest in the Caucasus, food shortages and blockades, and others had taught me to live within the limits of the reality and survive the today. Life at Mississippi State University was different: I had to choose, strategize, think big and be practical. The warm culture of the Southern Belt, the appetizing smell of corn bread and gumbo, the evening dances and prose over the bonfire were some of the campus traditions that I enjoyed and are among the memories I shaped with my university friends of the honor dorm that helped me create a sense of normalcy and future.
MSU welcomed me into its academic program of 1999-2000 as a UGRAD exchange student and changed my life forever. Of the many special experiences I had, I always recall three that were extremely important and shaped the future that I walk in today. The first was that I joined the Big Sisters and Big Brothers for Exchange Students program through MSU’s Student Union. Through this activity, I got to know several humanitarian workers who made me believe I could join that sector one day, gave me valuable tips and advice, and held a friendship with me for a long time. The second was that one of my professors often found me in the library digging through TESOL theories and advocated for me to join the TESOL certification program, where I learned about the importance of effective measurement. And the third was that I spent my Christmas break in Louisiana with a host family who I found through the International Students Office. With them, I traveled to nearly 10 states, learning about the life and realities of the South Belt and beyond, learning about its diverse culture, food and breaking the stereotypes I had formed before.
One thing I would have liked to do differently is to have used the help of International Students Office and professors earlier and more effectively. The first semester I struggled with my exams as the multiple choice assessments were new to me and required a different way of thinking. So did all the other seven students from the former Soviet bloc with who I had formed close friendships, as we shared a common language, culture and homesickness. After a few weeks of clinging together I realized that our frustrations and challenges were similar and we shared a lack of skills to address them. So I went out and used the help of the International Students Office, my professors during office hours, my Big Sister, and I noticed a steep improvement in my grades, and in my social network.
In 2014 I was at the Amsterdam airport and my flight to Stockholm was delayed. I went to the coffee shop, sat next to a lady and started chatting for nearly two hours about our work, our lives. She asked many questions about the Big Sisters Big Brothers program I was in, and what I thought of it. I told her how much influence it had on me, and that I am still following the pointers and advice I got from those years. Nearly 15 years later it was still inspiring me. Before she left, she told me she was happy to see what I had made out of my life, and she recognized me immediately as I approached her. There I was sitting with my Big Sister from the student support program at MSU, feeling ashamed I had not asked for her full name, had not recognized her through the wrinkles as she had severely aged due to illness, but I was happy for that delayed flight and the friendship that revitalized after that to become stronger.