In Azerbaijan with Rachel Simon ’11

As a Peace Corps volunteer in an Azerbaijani village, Rachel Simon ’11 is a novelty.

“I always get stared at,” says Simon (pictured on left with two of her students), an international relations major from California. “I’m the first American my village has ever met and probably the only foreigner to ever live here.”

Simon is one of 15 Mount Holyoke alumnae currently serving in the Peace Corps. Having completed the first six months of her 27-month assignment, she gave the College an update via Skype.

Why did you join the Peace Corps?
I wanted an adventure. I wanted to travel. And I wanted to live somewhere for a long enough period of time to really get to know a culture and learn a language.

How did you end up in Azerbaijan?
At Mount Holyoke I did the Republic of Georgia J-Term with [Professor of Russian Studies] Stephen Jones. I lived with a host family and had an internship. I loved the hospitality, the way of life, and seeing how a post-Soviet satellite state had begun to develop. I knew I wanted to come back to this part of the world. When I applied to Peace Corps, I made them know really clearly that I’m super interested in the Caucuses, and they gave me an awesome placement in Azerbaijan.

You were assigned to Dash Salahli. What’s it like there?
The village has dirt roads. There’s no grocery store. There are little shops that sell small things like toilet paper, oil, butter, and cheese. Every family has chickens in their backyard and a garden. Most of the food comes from the garden. There are two schools, one police station, and a very sketchy-looking hospital. But it’s beautiful. There are a lot of mountains nearby and good hiking paths for the weekends.

You’re working as an English teacher.
In Azerbaijan, the government wants the population to learn English because the country’s main resource is oil—and to work in the oil industry you have to know English. So, that’s one of Peace Corps’s primary goals in Azerbaijan. My students weren’t very interested in learning English before they met me, but I’ve introduced why it’s important and interesting.

How old are your students?
I teach sixth grade, seventh, eighth, ninth, and tenth. On paper, there are 700 students who go to the school, but I would say between 300 and 400 actually go. Most students are home helping their families do work. The school itself is underdeveloped. There’s no heat. The electricity comes and goes. It’s not a pleasant working environment. But I’m hoping to change that. I started putting pictures on the walls to make it prettier.

In addition to teaching, you’re starting a women’s club and an environmental club.
Coming out of Mount Holyoke I felt like women and youth are the people who can really make a difference, so for my women’s club I would like to see some change within the younger generation. I want all of my students to go to university. I want them to know that’s how you make your life. Career first, then family. I strongly believe these kids can be doctors, teachers—whatever they want—but they have to go to college.

And the environmental club?
That started because I taught a lesson about how to reduce, reuse, recycle in my eighth-grade English class, and we all talked about how messy the school was. So, we started doing trash-pickup days once a month. My goal is to bring trash cans to my village, because there are none, and to get people to stop littering—to put the garbage into the trash cans instead of on the street and in the streams.

What do you do in your spare time?
I’ve started going running in my village. Women don’t exercise in this country, so I’ve introduced to them that American women exercise because it’s healthy for them. I get the thumbs-up from a lot of people. Like the shepherds—they now know me on my path, and they’ll say, “Good job! Way to go!”

Where do you live?
When I first moved here I lived with a host family, but I just moved to my own house. It’s sort of a farce because, as a woman in a Muslim country, I’m not allowed to live alone, so I’m living with a family. They live in a big house, and I live in a smaller house in the yard. It has one bedroom with a sink, stove, refrigerator, and heater.

Are there things you miss about home?
I miss my family a lot and the comforts of America. For example, I had the flu last week, and when I had a fever, I just wanted a mattress. But we sleep here on cots, so I would Skype with my mom and dad and drool over the beds.

Did your Mount Holyoke education influence your decision to join the Peace Corps?
Stephen Jones and [Ruth Lawson Professor of Politics] Vincent Ferraro were probably the two most important people in my decision. I owe my interest in the Caucuses to Stephen. And Vinnie wrote to me, saying, “You couldn’t choose a more politically interesting and economically developing country than Azerbaijan. You got very lucky.” He put it into perspective that for the rest of my life this will be something I’ll be very thankful I have completed.

—Christina Barber-Just