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The Reflector

The Student Newspaper of Mississippi State University

The Reflector

The Student Newspaper of Mississippi State University

The Reflector

Alina Nigmatullina recounts cross-cultural journey

Courtesy photo | Alina Nigmatullina

Sunday mornings were carefree for a little girl who stayed in her grandmother’s summer home in Kazan, Russia. For breakfast, she ate pancakes and hot cereals served with coffee drowned in milk. Breakfast was accompanied by chats with her grandmother. The little girl enjoyed these long summer days but longed to experience parts of the wider world.

Alina Nigmatullina is a graduate assistant at Mississippi State University’s Holmes Cultural Diversity Center (HCDC) and a doctoral student in higher educational leadership. Born and raised in Kazan, Russia, her family always encouraged her to try new things.

Although Russian is her first language, Nigmatullina started learning English in the second grade. She also speaks Tatar, a regional language in Russia.

“It was always my favorite subject since early childhood,” Nigmatullina said. “I think I was always inclined to learning languages and literature. That’s just something I enjoy.”

In 2009, Nigmatullina had the opportunity to experience something she had longed for since she was a little girl: the United States. As part of the Future Leaders Exchange Program, she was placed in a host family of ranch owners in Aspermont, Texas.

“It was like the most Texan experience you can ever imagine,” Nigmatullina said. “So it came with everything you imagine about Texas when you watch movies or read books: horse riding, cow branding, goat sharing, whatever, you name it, it was there…wearing boots and cowboy hats and going to the rodeos.”

Billie Jo Vasquez is the mother of the host family Nigmatullina lived with. She always wanted to bring international students into her home. Her oldest son, Scooby, was involved in an organization called International Kids in College, and this is how the family found out about the opportunity to bring Nigmatullina into their home.

“We talked to a lady there and they sent us applications and we were able to choose two children to come live with us for a while, and Alina was one of them,” Vasquez said.

Nigmatullina spoke highly of Vasquez’s role in her life while she stayed with them.

“She was very much like my mom,” Nigmatullina said. “She was really good at building the relationship. I trusted her completely.”

Vasquez described Nigmatullina as a very caring, intelligent and beautiful person.

“She’s got a beautiful smile. It just lights up everything around her,” Vasquez said. “You could be having a bad day and she smiles and you just feel the warmth.”

The exchange program period ended in 2010, and Nigmatullina returned to her home country.

Nigmatullina attended Kazan Federal University where she received her undergraduate degree in African languages and literature and her master’s degree in English as a foreign language in secondary and higher education. After she graduated, she started teaching English at the university.

While she was teaching, she heard about the Fulbright U.S. Student Program, which offers participants a grant to “expand perspectives through academic and professional advancement and cross-cultural dialogue.” Her new destination was Mississippi Valley State University in Itta Bena, Mississippi. Here, Nigmatullina taught Russian 101 and 102 and a special topics class that focused on Russian history and literature.

Nigmatullina’s supervisor at Valley State was a graduate of Mississippi State and encouraged her to attend for her Ph.D. After touring campus, she made the immediate decision to apply.

“I was sold because it looked fabulous to me,” Nigmatullina said. “…I just was like, ‘I think I could really see myself being here as a student.’”

Nigmatullina was admitted to MSU in April 2020 when the COVID-19 pandemic was in full effect. When COVID initially hit in March, she was still at Valley State, trying to go back home to Russia.

“Most people went home when the quarantine started, but we couldn’t because the flights kept canceling,” Nigmatullina said. “They kept pushing and pushing all the way up until in July. Fulbright had to organize like a private plane for all the Russian participants because we’d been moving and moving in our tickets for months and couldn’t go home. So they had to book a flight for us, just for Fulbrighters and they took us home.”

Their flight landed in Moscow and the group of 20 had to quarantine for two weeks. Afterward, Nigmatullina was finally able to go home where she spent a year and deferred her graduate school enrollment until August of 2021.

Nigmatullina said the war in Ukraine has also made things harder for her to figure out while she is in the United States.

“Once the war started, a lot of businesses left Russia, including Visa and Mastercard companies, which shut down all of the credit and debit cards for me here,” Nigmatullina said. “So one beautiful morning I was just not able to use that anymore, no matter how much I had saved on those cards.”

Nigmatullina now advises three student organizations on MSU campus: International Student Advisory Board, Fostering LGBTQ Advocacy, Resources and Environments (F.L.A.R.E.) and Indigenous Students and Allies Association. Some of her responsibilities include planning events for the organizations and making sure students are good to go for meetings. She enjoys all the work she does with HCDC and values the experiences she has had working with the center.

“No matter where I go, the experience that I’m gaining here at HCDC, it would be with me because I get to meet so many different people of so many different backgrounds,” Nigmatullina said.

Yulia Kizner is Nigmatullina’s friend from Anapa, Russia. She is also a graduate student at Mississippi State and is pursuing her master’s degree in sports administration. She met Nigmatullina through HCDC.

“When I came to Mississippi State, to Starkville for the first time, I knew that the person who’s supervising international students is Ms. Alina and I came to her office to get acquainted with her in person,” Kizner said. “It turned out that she’s very welcoming and nice and always ready to help.”

Nigmatullina took Kizner on a tour of the campus where they discovered their similarities in their backgrounds from Russia. Since then, the two have been very close. Kizner said they strive to keep up Russian traditions together.

“We … go to the Russian store in Atlanta from time to time and buy some Russian food and Russian things that we crave for from time to time, we cook some Russian dishes together,” Kizner said.

When asked to describe Nigmatullina, Kizner used the word “sunshine.”

“She’s always eager to know other people too and ask them questions,” Kizner said. “… She’s positive and optimistic and passionate in her workplace and really kind and a great friend.”

When asked if she would consider becoming an American citizen, Nigmatullina laughed.

“It’s very difficult,” Nigmatullina said. “Like if it was something that I could go and say, ‘Oh, I want to be a citizen now,’ [I would]. It’s a very difficult process or so many grounds that you could try and apply on and the process for it can go up to years. I know people who’ve been waiting for 10 years to get a green card, not even a citizenship, not a passport, a green card. So it’s very difficult.”

Because she is an international student, Nigmatullina gets a one-year authorization to work in the U.S. after she graduates.

“As far as I can look at this point is, let me first get to the graduation point,” Nigmatullina said. “I still have a little bit to go.”

With the research she is doing as a Ph.D. student, Nigmatullina said she hopes international students on campus will be seen and heard more.

“I wish there were more highlights for international students and things they do, and more initiatives on campus to share what they go through,” Nigmatullina said. “Because I’m sure I’m not the only person who had to like survive COVID in a different country, who had their cards shut down or had the war start in the middle of them being away from family. So I’m sure there are more out there and I wish that we would be more seen as a population.”

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    Billy D. Wince, Sr.Apr 17, 2024 at 9:32 pm

    Teirrah Tidwell’s article on the PhD Student from Russia, is indeed a very informative, introduced the MSU PhD Undergrad Student, identifying her personal desires, struggles, and the MSU Staff Members and Professors, throughout campus, extremely warm welcome, which is the University’s Truthful Warmth Repartition. Ms. Tidwell, has again, shown her extreme abilities to introduce all areas of a subject, to reach the goal of presenting an extremely interesting article.