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Julie Nelson ’10 – Changing Lives in Azerbaijan

Julie with Prof. Sue Jamison in September '11

Before coming to Robert Morris University, Julie Nelson ‘10 had never been out of the country. Today she’s a seasoned traveler, having spent time in over 15 different countries. Currently, she’s working as an English teacher for the Peace Corps in the Azerbaijani town of Yevlakh.

This fall, Julie came back to RMU to speak to students in Sue Jamison’s sociology course and to share her story with them.

A native of nearby Hopewell, Julie originally started out in RMU’s hospitality and tourism management program. Then, in 2008, she decided to take part in a Study Abroad trip to West Africa. It was a decision that not only changed her career path, it changed her life.

While she was in The Gambia, Julie was surprised to see how happy the people were although they had so little, and it inspired her to want to help others in similar situations in the future. “Most of the resources and education are insufficient,” she says. “It’s still developing.”

While in The Gambia, Julie visited the Peace Corps headquarters and started learning about the goals of the organization. She also became close with Sue Jamison, and got to know Provost Dave Jamison, J.D., when she got back. “They opened my eyes and really inspired me.”

Eventually Julie picked up a minor in international studies and, after graduation, decided to enter the Peace Corps.

Today Julie lives with a host family in Yevlakh and gets paid 240 Manat a month, 100 of which goes to the host family. She’s actually the only American in her town, and for many, she’s the first one they’ve ever seen or met. Her health care is paid for in full; however, the best care is only available four hours away in capital of Baku. “Azerbaijan earns $50 million a day from its oil, which why Baku is so amazing,” she says. “But you step outside of the capital and see poverty everywhere.”

One of the students in Jamison’s class wanted to know if Julie is nervous to be working in such an unstable and dangerous part of the world. “I personally feel safe,” she told the class. “Relatively safe compared to the surrounding countries.”

A remnant from Soviet rule

Probably the hardest thing Julie had to get used to was the different set of gender rules they have in modern Azerbaijan, where women statistically exercise less freedom than they did when the country was under Soviet rule. She says that she tries to be respectful of their customs, but she also feels a responsibility to live her life as normal. As a result, she gets a lot of attention. When she first tried to exercise in her house, the neighbor women came over to watch and stare. “They don’t even have a word for exercise,” she says. “They wanted to know what I was doing and what I was wearing. They just don’t understand because it’s not a part of their society.

“It’s hard to be a single 23-year-old woman in Azerbaijan,” she continues. “People often treat me like a child. The roles are very traditional here. Women don’t go out after dark or go to restaurants in many parts of the country.”

In fact, in the remote regions of Azerbaijan, the majority of families still uphold stereotypical roles of men working outside the home while the women rarely leave and fulfill household duties. “It drastically limits women’s’ opportunities financially, professionally, and socially,” says Julie. “These ideals are passed from generation to generation, to the detriment of the female role in society.”

Additionally, the marginalization of the Azeri female population lies at the heart of many issues in Azerbaijan, such as human trafficking, insufficient level of women’s education, and sexually transmitted diseases. And it’s these issues that have inspired Julie to do what she can to bring about change. “In order to begin to battle these issues, we must start from the ground level in the regions of Azerbaijan, focusing on gender equality education.”

Julie with her host mother in front of their home.

Last spring, Julie applied and was chosen for the Peace Corps Azerbaijan WID/GAD Committee (Women in Development, Gender and Development), which serves as a resource to Peace Corps volunteers in Azerbaijan, developing materials and programs to endorse gender issue awareness. For their latest project, Julie and the committee formed a partnership with World of Women Social Union, which has extensive experience in promoting gender equality in Azerbaijan. “We believe that the WID/GAD Committee’s capacity for mobilization combined with World of Women’s expertise will create an extremely valuable opportunity for exposing diverse communities throughout Azerbaijan to gender issue awareness and education.”

Experienced trainers from World of Women will work together with WID/GAD Committee members in conducting gender trainings over a 6-month period throughout various regions of Azerbaijan. Beforehand, WID/GAD will conduct a “Training of Trainers” with World of Women in order to ensure the training’s coherence, sustainability, efficacy, and relevance. The goals of these regional trainings are to foster ideas of gender equality among Azerbaijani community members, prepare the younger generation for a life free of female marginalization, and stimulate the creation of a more open-minded society. “This project has the potential to positively impact the lives of Azerbaijani women, men, youth, and children for years to come,” says Julie.

If you’d like to follow along with Julie as she continues her adventure in Azerbaijan, check out her blog:

by Valentine J. Brkich

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