Nigina Khaitova (SIPA ’20) was a Harriman Institute’s 2019 Civil Society Fellow. She is President of SIPA Eurasia Group and focuses on human rights, the United Nations, and East Central Europe.
I met with Nigina at the Harriman Institute on Wednesday, October 9, 2019. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Tell me about your background.
I was born and raised in Tashkent, Uzbekistan. My family had a diplomatic background and we traveled a lot and discussed politics and international affairs at dinner. I fell in love with the United Nations when I was 12. In secondary school, I joined the model UN system. When I was 16, I started interning for the UN information office in Tashkent. Then I realized that, although there is an international university in Tashkent, I wanted to experience education abroad. I spent a year at Long Island University, where I majored in international affairs and started my own model UN club. Then I transferred to Pace University, where I double majored in political science and peace and justice studies and double minored in women’s and gender studies and philosophy.
Gender issues are my biggest passion aside from the UN. While studying at Pace I interned at the Working Group on Girls, a former UNICEF branch that’s now a coalition of national and international NGOs with representation at the UN that promote the rights of the girl child—a group disproportionally affected by violence and human trafficking.
What drew you to Columbia?
Columbia has always been my dream school. Frankly, I didn’t think I would get in. When I did, of course it wasn’t even an option to consider the other 7 schools that accepted me, even though many are prestigious institutions.
What’s your involvement with the Harriman Institute?
I came to Admitted Students Day at SIPA, I was very lucky to sit at a table with Rebecca Dalton the Student Affairs person at the Harriman Institute. I hadn’t heard about Harriman before because I hadn’t considered doing regional studies. After meeting Becca, I decided to give it a try. I met some SIPA students doing the certificate program, and all of them said they enjoyed it, but warned me that it might be challenging to combine the SIPA curriculum with the certificate requirements. I knew that I wanted to get the certificate and declared that I would pursue the certificate as soon as I started in the fall.
How has the Harriman certificate program shaped your experience at SIPA?
I never regretted my decision to study at the Harriman. It is a bit overwhelming to do both, and particularly challenging during my first year, when I had to fulfill all of the core SIPA requirements. Harriman classes were the ones that helped me maintain my academic curiosity and engagement while I was taking the quantitative and economics-based classes at SIPA.
What have been your favorite Harriman classes?
I loved the Central Asian politics and security class with Lawrence Markowitz and am really enjoying Legacies of Empire and the Soviet Union with Alexander Cooley.
You received the Harriman Institute’s Civil Society Fellowship last summer. Can you tell me about that?
I interned for UNICEF in Tashkent, which hosted another Harriman student last summer. While I was there, the whole UN country office and UNICEF were developing a country program—a strategic plan for the next 5 years. I had the chance to contribute. This is a very typical UN process that’s apparently essential to the system, regardless of where you are stationed and what UN program you are involved in. It was a bit alien to me at the beginning, because it was jargon-heavy, but it was very beneficial for my future career in the UN.
I also developed a concept note for the Youth Policy Dialogue on encouraging women’s political participation and civic engagement, designed a national youth contest that encourages young people to conduct data analysis and develop innovative policy recommendations to reform and enhance existing youth policy in Uzbekistan, and developed an engagement strategy for Uzbekistan’s U-Report volunteers. During my time in Tashkent, I got to meet many established UN officials both from Uzbekistan and abroad.
What do you most like about the Harriman Institute?
I absolutely love the family environment at the Harriman. I really appreciate students’ genuine interest in the region and the opportunity to learn so much from one another. I’m also grateful to have intellectual discussions on current events in an environment that is politically correct and emphasizes solidarity. Even people who come from regions that are at conflict with one another are able to engage with and listen to one another. I also appreciate the diverse class curriculum, and the amazing events the Harriman organizes.
What most surprised you about SIPA/Harriman when you started at Columbia?
That many people care about my home country and know where it is. My common frustration in the U.S. has been that people who hear the name Uzbekistan have no idea what country I’m talking about. Here, people not only immediately start asking me questions about the most current developments there, but also share their experiences and interest in the region. Some even start speaking to me in Russian or Uzbek.
Tell me about SIPA Eurasia Group.
A tradition of the SIPA Eurasia Group is to organize two-week trips to the region in the summer. Last summer we went to Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan for 10 days. We had meetings with government officials, members of civil society, and students in both countries.
In addition to the trips, we also organize a lot of events on and off campus. We bring UN representatives from the region to Columbia. Last semester we organized a Women in Diplomacy event. Together with the Harriman we organized an event with the Foreign Minister of Kyrgyzstan. Last semester we teamed up with the Harriman to celebrate Novruz here at SIPA. Most of our events are cosponsored by the Harriman. We also have traditions like the Brighton Beach Food Crawl, and screenings of Soviet films and cartoons.
What would you like to do when you graduate?
I want to work for the UN headquarters in New York.