Eshwa Azadzoi ’18 was 10 when she first had to learn how to adjust to a new culture. She grew up in Pakistan after her parents immigrated from their homeland of Afghanistan when the Taliban regime created an unsafe environment for their family. Although Pakistan proved welcoming, being immigrants meant limited job opportunities, not only for her parents but also in the future for Azadzoi and her older brother and sister. So when Afghanistan became more stable, the family returned and settled in Kabul.
The most difficult transitions, Azadzoi recalls, were related to school. Language was one hurdle. Because at home her family spoke Dari (one of the country’s official languages), Azadzoi could speak and understand the language, but she didn’t know how to read or write in Dari. The classroom atmosphere also was quite different. In Pakistan, teachers would discuss subjects with students. In her new classes, teachers would lecture to students, who would then repeat the lecture when called upon. “For the first couple of weeks, I remember I would just sit at the back of the class and observe what was going on,” says Azadzoi.
In Kabul, Azadzoi also began wearing a head scarf. Women wear scarves in Pakistan, she says, but not usually at such a young age. “When I went outside, they were staring at me and would say, ‘She’s not wearing a scarf.’ So that’s when I started wearing one,” she says. “But nobody told me how to wear the scarf, so even now I kind of wear it differently than all the other girls.” She and her sister soon stopped playing outside after school, too, because girls their age don’t do that in Afghanistan. Boys, notes Azadzoi, can do what they like.
Lately, though, the climate has begun to change, she says. “Girls can go together and hang outside,” she says. “They can go shopping alone, which was not normal before. It’s gotten much better. When it gets a little bit dark, then it’s not good for a girl to go outside. But women are studying and working outside of their homes until 5 p.m.”
Many urban parents now are trying to help their children, including girls, go to college, says Azadzoi, because they have seen the benefits of an education. Upon graduating high school, Azadzoi had decided that she wanted to attend the American University of Afghanistan. “It is one of the best private colleges in Kabul,” she says. She applied for a scholarship and was accepted. In 2012, she began her studies, majoring in business.
Turns out, the university would become a catalyst for Azadzoi’s next transition to a new culture. President Kerry Healey is a trustee of the university, where she introduced the Babson Global Scholars Program, her initiative to provide need-based, full scholarships to promising international students. One of Azadzoi’s professors recommended that she apply to the program, and she was chosen to participate.
In the fall of 2014, Azadzoi flew to the U.S. by herself to become a second-year student at Babson. This time, one of her most difficult transitions has been interacting with other students. “Connecting with people socially was the hardest challenge, even harder than my academics,” she says.
Women and men are much more open with each other here, she says. Azadzoi knew about American culture from watching U.S. television and movies. In fact, after leaving Pakistan, where she studied English, watching these shows and reading books is how Azadzoi kept up with the language. But the differences still caught her off guard. “They talk about anything with each other. Physically as well, they’re really open,” she says. “You can have guys be your really close friends. I knew what to expect, but it was so different to see that right in front of your face and happening all around you.”
In Afghanistan, women can be friends with men, but the relationship is superficial. “You don’t talk personal. We cannot do that. Even the guys would think, why is she sharing all that stuff with me?” says Azadzoi.
Similar to when she first attended classes in Kabul, Azadzoi learned by observing and listening to conversations to see what people talked about and how they interacted. She also discovered that her residence hall R.A. was from Pakistan. “As soon as she found out and she knew I could speak in her language, it was so amazing,” she says. “I called my parents and was like, ‘I found someone from Pakistan,’ and she was right across my hallway. We’re still good friends. We understand each other way better, because some things I can share with her and she can do the same with me.”
Connecting with her professors was difficult at first, too. “You can talk to them about almost anything, and they’re really invested in their students. You can go visit them during their office hours. That’s not normal back in my country,” she says. “I was not comfortable talking to my professors that much. But I learned how important it is.” Azadzoi has made sure to meet with her professors so that they know her and she knows them. Academically, her professors also expect much more from students than in Afghanistan, and some reading assignments take Azadzoi longer, because she doesn’t know all the vocabulary. To compensate, she works harder. “I really push myself,” she says.
But now that Azadzoi has been here for more than a year, she feels comfortable and happy in her environment. She remembers hearing advice early on from an alumnus who told her nothing is impossible at Babson. “If you have an idea, go for it, he told me. If you can’t do it alone, tell someone else, and they’re going to help you out. And then along the way throughout the year, I saw how true it was,” she says.
Azadzoi and Salome Mosehle ’18, another Global Scholar, started a club and conference called Global Women Empowerment. The two had talked about the struggles faced by women in their countries and created the club to raise awareness. “People here should know how women struggle in other countries,” she says. This year, Azadzoi also is a peer mentor, because she wants to help other new students settle in to life at Babson.
After graduation, Azadzoi plans on returning to Afghanistan. She believes she already has a lot to offer and hopes to work for a nonprofit that helps women or maybe even start a business. “The word entrepreneurship is not common back in Afghanistan, especially if you’re a woman,” she says.
Looking at herself, Azadzoi says she has changed dramatically, and she likes what she sees. “Sometimes, especially in my country, change is seen as a negative thing. But you have to change and you have to grow, and in just a year I’ve grown so much,” she says. “I feel like if my parents and my family members see me, they’re not going to believe who I am.”—Donna Coco