Of Mountains and Mad Libs

By Samantha Falvey
Signal Contributor

Samantha Falvey, a TCNJ history major, teaches English to children in Tajikistan. (Photo courtesy of Samantha Falvey)
Samantha Falvey, a TCNJ history major, teaches English to children in Tajikistan. (Photo courtesy of Samantha Falvey)

My very first experience outside of America is living here in the city of Dushanbe in Tajikistan for six weeks as an Unofficial Ambassador. Before leaving, I was asked by everyone why I chose to travel to Tajikistan. Specifically, people asked me, “Where/what is Tajikistan?” and then, “Why there?!”

I chose the tiniest country in Central Asia because I had heard such great things about it. My favorite college adviser and a couple of great friends had recommended it highly. Then, of course, there was the novelty of going to a country so exotic and different, made up mostly of mountains.

While here, I have had some scary new experiences that have also been so special and rewarding. For instance, I hiked a mountain, following our friends on steep, narrow trails made of sliding rocks. All the way up I was amazed by the view as the landing shrunk out of sight. Once at the top, it was a natural paradise of green grass and crisp, clear mountain streams. There was fishing, cooking, a bonfire and plenty of napping. I laid out on a rock in the middle of the rushing stream near our camp, and the cold water and hot afternoon sun were an incredibly memorable scene.

Although I came to Tajikistan with no expectations, I was still shocked by this experience. I had never realized that there could be such a beautiful place in the real and physical world. All I knew were suburban streets and the ocean.

Though hiking a mountain may seem daring and a bit precarious, what was more daunting was teaching at the Tajik Institute of Languages. Prior to coming to Tajikistan, I had little knowledge of teaching English as a second language and the educational background I had was with elementary aged students. I felt like I walked into the situation blind and I didn’t know what was expected of me from the teachers or the students, in fact, I wasn’t even sure if the students would understand me enough for me to work with them.

I came to the country with a few activities in mind and the idea that if I could somehow convey some knowledge or skills that I possessed to my students then my goal would be accomplished.

So far, I am happy to say that my expectations have been exceeded. The sole reason for this is my students’ ravenous appetite for learning. They came more prepared than I did with pens and paper ready, each individual with a hundred questions poised on their lips.

Their drive enabled me to use my creativity in a way I hadn’t planned; as we came to know each other we were able to work as a team in order to accomplish our respective goals.

My students have taught me so much about Tajik culture and have given me important skills—such as flexibility—which have continuously aided me on this journey. They have showed me their renowned hospitality, national dress and dances and made me some of their most delicious national dishes—mantu and samsas.

In turn, I have tried my best to present the English language in a fun, relatable way in order to get them engaged in effective communication.

Together, we have enjoyed the silliness of Mad Libs, where my students “bark” at 4 a.m. and then “beat” their faces.

We also bonded over Fran Drescher’s quirky sitcom “The Nanny” and the interesting differences between British and New York accents. We have even debated pertinent issues to Tajik students from all over the country, which has allowed my students an open venue to air their opinions about their society.

In this way, I believe we have created an incredible bridge between cultures and ourselves that will continue to help us attain more knowledge about each other. I am so excited to continue this wonderful journey.

Samantha Falvey is a senior majoring in History at the College of New Jersey with experience in American Sign Language and Arabic. This summer she is serving as one of America’s Unofficial Ambassadors to Tajikistan, teaching English at the Tajik Institute of Languages and the Bactria Cultural Center.