From Turkmenistan to Dr. Seuss to Emporia State
Elvira Avdeyeva recalled the first day she landed in America from her home in Ashgabat, Turkmenistan.
“I was like a zombie my first day because of the time difference,” she said. “It was weird and crazy. It was a culture shock because everyone speaks English. I mean, you have to understand that you have to speak English all the time!”
And while many a traveler has knelt down to kiss the terra firma upon arrival from an overseas trip, this tenacious bundle of energy was more likely to plant a kiss on a copy of the Dr. Seuss classic, Horton Hears a Who!
You see, it was reading Dr. Suess and watching American cartoons with English subtitles that helped Avdeyeva learn to speak the language of the United States, the land she had traveled more than 6,000 miles to in search of a college education.
Avdeyeva’s life had been upended when her mother died in 2010, leaving her to live with her father and older sister.
“That is when it hit me,” she remembered. “I don’t have a mother. I just have a dad and he really can’t afford to send me to college. So I thought, ‘I am really young and I should try to learn another language and try to go somewhere.’”
While her father was supportive of her ambition, at that time in Turkmenistan, it was difficult to find classes to take and those available were too expensive. Avdeyeva might have been short on money, but she was long on determination.
“I could not really afford the classes, so I just thought I would find a book and learn, and I know it was so hard.”
She had two books she started out with — a dictionary and a grammar book. It was a beginning but neither could help her with pronunciation. So she turned to Dr. Seuss and Horton, which she discovered in the library at the Information Resource Center of the United States Embassy in Ashgabat.
“I started watching cartoons and they would have English or Russian subtitles. They would speak English and that is how I learned a little pronunciation. Cartoons are about the best way for beginners to learn. I could not use YouTube or anything because my home did not have an Internet connection. So I had DVDs and that is how I started.”
It was at the Embassy that she saw her first English movie. It was Social Network, the story about the founding of Internet phenomenon Facebook.
“I found it inspiring. They showed the university (Facebook co-founder Mark Zuckerberg) went to at Harvard and how he started his dream in his dorm room,“ said Avdeyeva, who also fell in love with the classic Christmas movie, Home Alone.
“My American dream is like everything I saw from those movies that I started watching. I would watch Home Alone every year. It is like American life is connected with Christmas for me. I would see this American family cooking and the Christmas tree, and in my country we don’t have this. It started from this. It was family, it was Christmas, it was presents, and Santa Claus. And I thought, one day maybe I could get to do all this.”
Avdeyeva also discovered a program where Peace Corps volunteers came to Turkmenistan and it gave her the opportunity to meet Americans, tell them about her culture, and practice her English speaking skills. In turn, the Americans made presentations about American culture.
“I started having so much respect for the United States because they would come to my country and make these presentations. They had an English book club and I decided to take this opportunity to attend. And they were free.”
Free, but not exactly easy to attend. The book club was about a 90-minute trip from her home, made for a long day, and consumed her social life.
“I was in 9th and 10th grade at the time and my classes started at 8:30 in the morning and lasted until 2 p.m. My school was like walking distance from home, so I would go home and eat and then go out to the book club, to hear a presentation, or to my English class.
“My friends were like, ‘we are losing you!’ But my friends could afford an education and I told them, you all have plans for when you graduate, but I didn’t have anything. I had to build my own future. It was all worth it.”
Often Avdeyeva would arrive home around midnight, traveling in an area she said was not considered safe.
“I would ask my sister to meet me at the bus stop because it was frightening at night.”
About this same time, Avdeyeva met an American professor, Fulbright scholar Dr. John Richardson, Jr., who was in Turkmenistan working with the National Library and the Institute of Culture. Richardson was looking for someone to help him get around the city by bus and Avdeyeva kindly obliged. While they chatted, the UCLA professor emeritus of Information Studies, mentioned that he needed someone to help translate for a project he was working on that involved the publication of a dictionary.
“He needed someone to translate from Russian to English, but said he could not pay anything, it was just volunteer.” Avdeyeva never hesitated. “And I said, Dr. Richardson please take me. Yes I will do it!”
She accomplished the translation for Richardson and also had a chance to share her country with him.
Richardson was so impressed, he later wrote a letter of reference for Avdeyeva to the American Councils for International Education, helping her secure the opportunity to attend school in the United States.
“Elvira strikes me as an extremely outgoing, enthusiastic, and knowledgeable student of the English language,” he wrote in the 2012 letter. “Since she has served as my volunteer interpreter on more than several occasions in meetings, I can comment on her extraordinary poise and self-confidence. Frankly, I was surprised to learn that she was only 17!
“I know that she has the personality as well as the academic skills to succeed in any community college in the U.S.; and I really look forward to learning of her future success in transferring to a four-year liberal arts college or university which has a marketing emphasis or major. In short, I believe that she has a bright future and I really want her to succeed.”
The two still keep in contact and Avdeyeva has occasionally done some checking of Russian grammar for Richardson.
Once in America, Avdeyeva started her education at Allen County Community College in Iola, Kan. After two years there, she transferred to Emporia State. It was love at first sight.
“I knew I was gonna like school after my visit day here,” she said. “But I did not know how much I was going to love Emporia State. I really, really love Emporia State.”
Coming from a city of more than a million people, Avdeyeva admitted that moving to Emporia, with a population of about 25,000, is a big change. But she found it to be a good change.
“What I want to say is that the size is perfect,” she said. “I have traveled the states and can compare Emporia to the cities I’ve been to. I loved all of them, it was amazing, but there are so many distractions you have in those places and I don’t think I could concentrate on my school. Here, you don’t see distractions and you can concentrate on school, but you are still able to be involved and meet people. We have more than 130 organizations and there is always something to do here.”
Avdeyeva also praised Emporia State for its interest in helping students succeed.
“I did not expect how much support Emporia State gave me,” she said. “The School of Business helped me get permission to work off campus and helped me with the general application process for the internship.”
And while Dr. Seuss character Horton played an important role in Avdeyeva’s learning the English language, the following Seuss quote from Oh, The Places You’’ll Go! seems more appropriate to sum up her impressive journey to America and educational success:
“You have brains in your head. You have feet in your shoes. You can steer yourself any direction you choose. You’re on your own. And you know what you know. And YOU are the one who’ll decide where to go…”
Emporia State’s Elvira Avdeyeva is on her way!