From St. Augustine to Baku?

Senior studies abroad in an unconventional location

By Andrea Huls

While most students who want to study abroad choose famous cities such as Paris, Rome, Barcelona or London, senior Abby Wendle, 21, packed her bags to go to Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan — a small country, formerly a member of the Soviet Union.

Wendle, a liberal arts major, heard about Azerbaijan through her older brother who lives there. After some research, she applied and was accepted to the University of Khazar.

For six and a half months she studied political science, anthropology, journalism and history — all in English.

One of Wendle’s favorite things at the university was an English conversational club, especially because she didn’t speak Russian or Azeri, the two major languages spoken throughout Azerbaijan. The conversations usually focused on religion and politics.

“It was a wonderful experience,” Wendle said. “I helped them with language and they helped me with reasoning.”

Wendle was the only American in the club and her classmates were excited to practice with a native speaker. Wendle says whether people realize it or not, English is becoming a universal language, mainly because it is the language of money and business.

Because 95 percent of Azerbaijan’s population practices Islam, this is one of the reasons she wanted to go. She said she wanted to break the stereotype of Muslims that is portrayed by the American media.

“There is a fear and prejudice of Muslims in the U.S. because of Sept. 11,” she said.

According to Wendle, people in Azerbaijan are not that different from us. “It is a mistake to say that there is a western culture and a Muslim eastern culture,” she said. “There are different ways of living all over the world.”

Another misconception she says is the belief that Muslim women are oppressed. According to Wendle, even though Azerbaijan is a men’s world, that is not the case.

“[I think] every society has its own problems with oppression,” she explained. Women are not forced to cover themselves or stay home. On the contrary, they have great sense of style. They wear high heels, accessories, have long hair and use a lot of make-up.

Azerbaijan, however, is a politically oppressed country. According to a BBC country profile, even though freedom of expression is guaranteed by the constitution, there is intimidation and violence against journalists or media outlets. There are doubts whether President Ilham Aliyev is really committed to democracy.

Aliyev won the 2003 presidential election, but western observers believe that the political campaign had been marred by voter intimidation, violence and media bias.

“[These motives] in a lot of ways shape who they are and who they can be,” Wendle said.

The beginning of her trip was difficult. She had to do a double effort to embrace new traditions and ways of being. During her stay, she traveled around the country and fell in love with the distinct and colorful landscapes. Baku is full of cold Soviet buildings, but had little corner shops on every block where people can purchase everything from toilet paper to bread. The main market had tents made of sticks and blankets where people sold fruits, meat, vegetables or even junk such as old soviet coins, broken lamps, books, etc.

Her stomach had to adjust to the food. “I got sick very often,” she said. People eat a lot of lamb and beef, and they eat the liver and kidneys, trying not to waste anything. Wendle felt safer eating lentil soup and a variety of vegetables. “They had hundreds of different kinds of salads, and they put mayonnaise on everything,” she said.

Above all, her favorite thing was the bread. They sell “wonderful, homemade, everyday bread … hundreds of loafs.” The big round loafs were the cheapest thing in the shops, and were never thrown away. “The bread is the soul of the society. Bread is something people come together to share,” she said.

Wendle says her experience has given her the desire to continue traveling and learning about other nations.

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