Tajikistan native Nilu Umarova cherishes every day she gets to live in Menomonie and attend University of Wisconsin-Stout.
“I am living my American dream right now,” Umarova said. “I love and enjoy every moment of it.”
The first-year student majoring in hotel, restaurant and tourism management graduated from Menomonie High School in May 2018 through the Future Leaders Exchange Program. High school students from Europe and Eurasia receive scholarships to spend an academic year in the U.S., living with a family and attending an American high school. The program is funded by the U.S. Department of State.
Growing up in a rural, mountainous part of Tajikistan, Umarova said when she first arrived in Menomonie in August 2017 she did not believe it was the U.S. “I had a different expectation of America,” she said. “I expected high buildings, popular (famous) people, a city like Chicago.”
After graduating from Menomonie High School, Umarova returned to Tajikistan, unsure if she would get a visa to return to study at UW-Stout. “Coming back to attend UW-Stout was one of my biggest goals,” Umarova said. “I had made a lot of friends here. I wanted to come back to the community. People are so nice here. I don’t feel like a stranger here. I feel comfortable. I visualized myself at UW-Stout. I don’t think I ever wanted something so much as to come to UW-Stout.”
Raised by her grandparents and her mother, Umarova speaks five languages, Tajik, English, Uzbek, Persian and Russian. She wants to work at an international company in hospitality and dreams of making her country better for future generations.
With the help of a GoFundMe crowd-funding account, funds were raised to pay for Umarova’s flight back to the U.S. She was awarded the top merit-based International Student Tuition Scholarship at UW-Stout, which is equivalent to $3,000 per semester to help pay tuition. Other private donations helped pay part of her tuition.
She lives with the family of Glenda Jones, professor in the English and philosophy department, and works 20 hours a week as a student manager in Dining Services, the maximum allowed under her visa. Still it will be a struggle for her to pay second-semester tuition.
“My family is very poor,” Umarova said, noting she left Menomonie on June 20 and returned to attend UW-Stout Aug. 20. “They were not able to help me. Glenda has been my mentor. I see her like my mom.”
Jones, who volunteers with the World Heritage Student Exchange program, which helps bring international students to the U.S., met Umarova while she was at the high school. “She said something that pulled on my heartstrings,” Jones said. “She said, ‘I wish there was enough money for one little girl like me to go to the university.’ I thought, ‘Why isn’t there and what can I do to help get her back here?’
“I teach women and gender studies. If we can help one woman get educated it can change the future for her family. Nilu had a 4.0-grade point average when she came to the U.S. She has always been a good student. An opportunity to study in the U.S. isn’t something someone from a poor culture has often, especially a woman. I feel like I can’t impact hundreds or thousands of people with what I can do, but I can impact one person and make a difference in her life.”
Umarova is the third exchange student to stay in her home, Jones said. The others were from Italy and France. “It really has made my family better,” Jones said, noting it allows her and her two children the opportunity to have an extended family in other countries.
Scott Pierson, director of the UW-Stout Office of International Education, said Umarova is vice president of the International Relations Club and helped put together International Education Week held earlier this month.
“She is a fantastic ambassador of Tajikistan, and it’s clear that she has chosen the right path academically; she wishes to pursue a career in hotel, restaurant and tourism management so that she can represent her country in the field of hospitality,” Pierson said. “It is really a special experience for me to mentor a student who is living her dreams to fruition.”
Nationally about 10.9 percent of U.S. students study abroad each year, Pierson said. UW-Stout sends about 15 percent of its students overseas. “Although we have great participation in our Study Abroad programs, the majority of UW-Stout students do not engage in overseas study,” Pierson said.
“Having international students on our campus is a way for us to bring the world here. Foreign students enrich our classroom with interesting and new perspectives, play a role of cultural and national ambassadors and often teach us to become more open-minded and better problem-solvers. They are eager to try new things, share unique aspects of their culture and are genuinely interested in learning about our norms and traditions,” Pierson said.
“Our lives are interconnected and interdependent in a global context more than ever before,” Pierson added. “If one is not able to take advantage of education abroad programming at UW-Stout, we’re excited that as an institution we are able to offer multiple international experiences right here on campus. Students like Nilu, living their dreams here in the U.S., help to make this possible.”
Umarova tries to take part in as much of college life as possible, attending activities on campus and learning as much as she can. “I feel comfortable and happy,” she said. “I enjoy every moment of my life here.”
UW-Stout is Wisconsin’s Polytechnic University, with a focus on applied learning, collaboration with business and industry, and career outcomes.
Glenda Jones, center, with her daughter, Audrey, and Umarova, at right, wanted to make a difference in Umarova's life by helping her attend UW-Stout. / Photo courtesy of Laura Giammattei, Gemstone Photography LLC
Umarova with a friend, Semone Thomas, of Menomonie. Umarova was a Menomonie High School exchange student. After returning home to Tajikistan for the summer, she dreamed of being able to return and attend UW-Stout. Funds were raised to buy her airfare back to the U.S. / UW-Stout photo by Brett T. Roseman