Few collegiettes speak fluent Russian, intern in Moscow and return to their native country as a Fulbright Scholar. Then again, Esther Tetruashvily is no ordinary college student.
The English and International Studies double major, with minors in Central Eurasian Studies and Spanish, was a world traveler before taking her first step. Her family fled war in Azerbaijan – a country in Central Asia – with baby Esther in tow, seeking refuge in Austria and Italy, until finally settling in the Garden State.
"I love traveling, I love speaking with people from other countries and I feel comfortable in situations where I am the foreigner," said Esther. "But I wasn't always so brave."
The interest in traveling was sparked by the fine example of Mom and Dad. “My parents are by-products of the Soviet Union and not being able to travel is something that has compelled them to travel,” she explained.
Besides family summer excursions around the world, her first official travel experience was a semester abroad in Madrid sophomore year, where she lived with a host family and volunteered with a local school, helping minority students after hours.
In one of Madrid's open-air markets, she stumbled upon "Ali and Nino" by Kurban Said, a book that renewed her interest in her Azeri hertiage. Upon returning to TCNJ, she “reached out to faculty in the Central Eurasian Studies program and basically said, ‘I’m fascinated, I’m from this region and I barely know anything about it.’”
After a little networking, one thing led to another, and soon Esther was applying for an internship with the International Office of Migration – Moscow Branch, where she translated manuals, compiled research from legal databases, and assisted the organization with a project on readmission agreements.
While working at the IOM, Esther kept her eye out for other opportunities, one of which was volunteering with the non-profit Fund Tajikistan, a leading migrant rights protection organization in Russia.
“I mustered the courage to send it - I mean, who does that? Just off the cuff write to an organization in Russia asking about volunteering?” she said with a laugh. But she did and they loved her.
While at the Fund Tajikistan, she acted as translator (English and Russian) and conducted migrant surveys, consulted on grant proposals and distributed aid items, like hygienic products for women.
In both cases, Esther was able to employ her talents in the fight against human trafficking and labor exploitation. It is a passion that began in high school – "I remember being horrified to realize slavery still existed in the 21st century, people were just looking for a job and they end up being exploited as sex slaves," she said. "Women especially are vulnerable because they don't speak about rape and they don't speak about the abuses because it's a mark against their honor. The consequences of family members finding out is possibly graver than the incident."
Esther’s next big adventure begins this September, when she returns to Azerbaijan as a Fulbright Scholar. Afterward, she hopes to obtain a graduate degree in Russian and Central Asian Studies.
“My travel experience has shaped who I am,” Esther said. “I learned a lot about politics and how international regimes work, it enhanced my academics and changed my approach to life.”
“Studying or traveling abroad is so important,” she added. “More and more jobs want you to be a global citizen, not just looking locally but going beyond borders.”
Amidst all the hoopla of Fulbright glory and simultaneous induction into two honor societies, Esther continues to diligently make her way through completing her thesis – all 120 pages of it. Fittingly, the topic is human trafficking and labor exploitation of Tajik labor migrants in Russia.
Through it all, she remains humble and charming.
Her advice to collegiettes who want to make a difference in the world? “There is a saying in Russian: ‘I’m afraid but I’m not a coward.’ It is so important admitting to yourself that yes, you are scared to take the risk, but you will because you know one day it will help you.”
“It's about knowing what you want and not being afraid to get it,” she concluded.
Esther’s inspiration for her work stems from stories like this one, about a woman she met while volunteering with Fund Tajikistan:
The woman was from Pamir region of Tajikistan. Her family was poor and she had no one left. Following her brothers' footsteps (and many other Tajiks), she went to Russia. But instead of working as a nanny, as she had been told, she was stuck in the back of a restaurant peeling potatoes without pay. After 4 months, she was given 16,000 rubles. Her complaints led to a beating and threats of deportation. But she was considered illegal - what could she do? Homeless and jobless, she lived on the street. Until one day someone picks her up and tells her about this job... she ends up sold into prostitution. Luckily she escaped with the aid of a migrant group and currently works illegally washing dishes in another restaurant. The woman is depressed, extremely psychologically traumatized and unable to afford medical care. She can't ever go home to Tajikistan because of the stigma of what happened.
"I met her on my first day at work. After that interview, I realized how real it was."