Itgelmaa Chavgaa, Communications Assistant for Boulder Dushanbe Sister Cities, recently Zoom-conferenced with Jode Brexa and Zeboniso Murodova, two Fulbright Alumni who have maintained a ten-year relationship with BDSC. During their chat, Jode and Zeboniso shared past experiences working with Tajiks and their current education-based projects in Tajikistan. While discussing their mutual work and longtime friendship, it was apparent that these two specialists share a sense of enthusiasm and joy for working with Tajik students.
Jode received her postgraduate degree in Applied Leadership and Policy Studies from the University of Colorado-Denver. She has been involved in education for 40 years, teaching in several different countries around the world from volunteering in the Peace Corps in Senegal to a fellowship in Romania. In the past several years, Jode has worked in Delhi, Kolkata, and Bangalore as well as in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, training women as an English Language Specialist with the State Department.
Zeboniso graduated from Tajik State University in 2004 with a degree in English. Her passion for teaching kids began in her childhood as she observed her mother, who was also an English language teacher. Regarding her mother’s influence, Zebo said, “I like to teach because it is in my blood. My mom is my first mentor, she is also an English language teacher.” After her graduation, Zeboniso started her journey as a teacher at the public school in her hometown in Tajikistan.
Meeting through a passion for education
Jode and Zeboniso’s friendship dates back to 2009, when they were both involved in the Teaching Excellence Achievement Program (TEA), for which Zebo won an opportunity to the United States. Soon after her arrival to the US, Zeboniso spent two months at the University of North Dakota, her program host institution. After, Zeboniso would develop the cross-cultural exchange by hosting an American teacher in Tajikistan. Jode was teaching at Arapahoe Campus and was selected as an American TEA finalist to teach in Tajikistan. Jode emphasized that the reason for choosing Tajikistan as her host country was deeply connected with the Boulder Dushanbe Teahouse in Boulder where she was a frequent visitor. Then, soon to visit Tajikistan and learning about the amazing work and initiatives of Boulder Dushanbe Sister Cities, she joined the board and served for 2 years to work on BDSC’s marketing, project goals, membership and outreach.
While discussing how they first met in Washington D.C., Zeboniso and Jode were excited and nostalgic. Neither Jode nor Zeboniso knew what the other looked like. Fortunately, they were able to identify each other. Jode said, “There were these three beautiful Central Asian women in full Tajik dress, celebrating their national culture with little traditional hats. The Tajik clothes are stunning, the fabrics and the design. They were so full of goodwill and I felt so lucky to meet them!”
Initially, the TEA program was for two weeks in Tajikistan. However, Jode and Zebo’s collaboration evolved into a decade-long exchange. Through a TEA alumni grant, Jode traveled back to Tajikistan to do a Digital Storytelling project. In 2011, Zebo returned to the US on an exchange and visited Boulder, hosted by the Boulder Dushanbe Teahouse for a welcome dinner, which, Zebo said, reminded of her culture and felt like home.
Ever since that initial meeting, they have evolved their partnership. Zeboniso and Jode’s mutual work represents a deep cultural exchange between Tajik and American educational interests and exemplified how two women from different cultures strengthen person-to-person diplomacy through education. In the wake of the global COVID-19 pandemic, Jode and Zebo continue to work together to support rural girls, despite the geographical location and time difference.
Currently, Jode and Zeboniso are working with the ACCESS Microscholarship program, an English language program funded by the U.S. State Department in more than 80 countries around the world. ACCESS is a great opportunity for economically disadvantaged students between the ages of thirteen to twenty to about American culture. Zeboniso emphasized the importance of Tajik students’ drive to learn English as a means to improve their lives by opening the door to professional opportunities. Only students with little to no prior English language experience are accepted and on completion of the ACCESS program, students can apply for the Future Leadership Exchange Program (FLEX).
Many ACCESS Alumni aspire to qualify for the FLEX Program. FLEX participants get an opportunity to study in the United States for one year, live with an American family, explore American culture, and share Tajik customs with American students. The FLEX Program also offers career opportunities.
To develop digital literacy with Zebo’s ACCESS students, Jode initiated a Digital Storytelling project. Funded by a grant from the American Embassy in Dushanbe, workshops teach girls how to narrate a 3-minute story using a movie-making platform. Jode and Zeboniso’s objectives for this project is to give skills to girls to amplify their voice, using Digital Stories to express their thoughts, passions, and dreams.
Zeboniso’s fifteen students love their ACCESS Program this year, but due to COVID-19, the face-to-face program was moved to a cell-phone Google Meet platform. In this climate, Jode and Zebo have built a hybrid Digital Storytelling model. Zebo and Jode’s 10-year friendship and collaboration underlie their daily online communication as they move forward with building virtual models for the ACCESS Program. Certainly, their passion and goodwill support the development for young women with digital literacy. The first five ACCESS girls are completing their Digital Stories this week! Look for their work in October on Jode’s website jodebrexa.com.