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Homepage Photo: Niki Lee with her peer tutor, Miryasin, standing in front of the Üç Alov (Three Flames) towers.

Top Right Photo: Niki (left) in Lərik with a fellow CLS student and three sheep herding Azerbaijani boys.

Bottom Left Photo: Niki (right) and two other CLS students making gutab, a traditional Azerbaijani dish made with herbs wrapped in thin lavaş dough.

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Niki Lee uses Critical Language Scholarship to study in Azerbaijan

Niki Lee with anothe CLS student and three Azerbaijani boys.

By Lisa Laughlin

“Travel is more than the seeing of sights; it is a change that goes on, deep and permanent, in the ideas of living.” – Miriam Beard

Senior Niki Lee has a passion for travel. It’s not only the sightseeing, tourist-side of travel that fascinates her, but the endeavor of truly learning and understanding other cultures. As a quadruple major in International Studies, Environmental Horticulture, French, and Spanish, Lee was selected for the Critical Language Scholarship (CLS) Program and spent her summer in Baku, Azerbaijan.

“I first became interested in Azerbaijan after having to represent it as part of the Model United Nations class offered at the University of Idaho,” said Lee. “In order to write our position papers, we were required to research what our country’s position might be regarding various issues, and I was fascinated by Azerbaijan’s history and geographical importance . . . I decided that the best way to learn more about the country would be to go there and interact with Azerbaijanis in their native language.

CLS is a primarily academic program, and Lee spent about five hours in class five days a week. The CLS program is for undergraduate or graduate students enrolled in a college in the United States. Lee was with eleven other CLS students from across the country, their ages ranging from 19 to 45 and representing nine different U.S. states.

One of the biggest challenges Lee faced while abroad was learning the language in Baku and learning the agglutinative Azerbaijani grammar. But her hard work paid off eventually.

“Being able to communicate with someone in their native language enables you to establish a deeper, more meaningful relationship with them, since you’ve made the effort to learn their mother tongue,” she said. “It was rewarding to realize that I can arrive in a country knowing almost nothing of the language and leave two months later being able to make Azerbaijani friends.”

While Lee wasn’t studying in the classroom setting, she was learning first-hand the challenges of adapting to a foreign culture.

“One of the most challenging aspects about living in Azerbaijan was the difference between gender roles there and in the United States. Although Baku is much more cosmopolitan than other regions of Azerbaijan, I encountered individuals who believed that a woman’s role in life should be focused on home life, rather than education or a career.”

But Lee was able to learn from these different perspectives, even when they tested her personally.

Niki Lee making gutab, a traditional Azerbaijani dish with two friends. “I encountered a lot of different viewpoints on women. The most shocking was the claim that they are ‘spiritually’ inferior,” said Lee. “But it was fascinating to see why they held that belief. Interestingly enough, despite the fact that in most regions of Azerbaijan it is culturally unacceptable for women to drive or walk alone in the evening, women were granted the right to vote in 1919, one year before the United States.”

Lee further immersed herself in the Azerbaijani culture by interacting daily with her host family and touring with her fellow students on weekends.

“I had a host mom and dad who were wonderful and really helped me to learn the language. I also spent a lot of time with Azerbaijani friends I made as well as with other CLS students,” she said. “The most interesting places to me were outside of Baku, such as the ruins of Albanian churches, some of which were over 1,500 years old. I also climbed a mountain in Laric, in the South of Azerbaijan, and was able to see the Iranian border from there.”

Lee considers this travel crucial to her learning experience.

“Although I certainly learned a lot while at the Azerbaijan University of Languages, I gained a much greater understanding of the culture and colloquial language through travel,” she said. “I was really pleased at how quickly I was able to adapt to Azeri culture and I think being there made me a much more open-minded and culturally sensitive individual. I began to take things that normally would have upset me or made me uncomfortable at face value, rather than writing them off simply because they were different from cultures I had previously been exposed to.”

And Azeri culture was hardly the first that Lee has been exposed to. The Honors student and Rotary Ambassadorial Scholar first traveled out of the country in 1999 with her father to Quito, Ecuador as he studied abroad as an Idaho Latin American Studies major. Since then, she has studied and lived in Peru, Brazil, and Quebec, and visited Costa Rica, Mexico, France, Spain, and Taiwan. In addition, she plans on going to Chile in January 2013.

Still, she cites Baku as one of her most transformative travels.

“Being in Azerbaijan gave me a greater level of cultural awareness and sensitivity,” she said. “Although aspects of Azerbaijani society were difficult for me to accept based on values I’ve developed growing up in the United States, I came to appreciate the differences between our countries and understand them better.”

Lee knows that her experience in Baku will be influential on her post-graduation goals.

“I think the CLS program opened a lot of doors for me in terms of career options and future goals. I met a lot of Peace Corps volunteers while I was there and am definitely considering volunteering after graduation,” she said. “Living in Azerbaijan for two months gave me an entirely new perspective on international relations, particularly relations in the Caucasus region and between Azerbaijan and Iran. I’ve begun considering working in the Caucasus as a potential career option, because I loved the region and found it incredibly fascinating.”

Regardless of where her international pursuits take her, Lee will always remember her CLS journey.

“It was easily one of the most rewarding experiences of my life. Being able to say that I arrived in Azerbaijan knowing essentially nothing of the language and left at an intermediate, conversational level is something I’m really proud of, and it’s an opportunity that should be taken advantage of.”