Surayyo Ilnazarova, MS/SID'20 (Tajikistan)

Surayyo Ilnazarova

It wasn’t easy for Surayyo Ilnazarova, MS/MA SID’20, to leave her two little girls behind in Tajikistan. But doing a master’s degree abroad was always her dream, and when she became a successful candidate for the Civil Society Leadership Award by Open Society Foundation, she knew she needed to take the unique opportunity to come to the United States to achieve her career objectives.   

“Tajikistan is in a period of transition. It’s reforming all sectors and struggling to find a better approach to improve the health system as well,” she says. After working in both clinical and public health, “I understand many existing problems at grassroot level, and I want to work in a place where I can make a meaningful contribution to address some problems and advocate for others.”

That’s why she chose the Heller School, where she’s now pursuing dual degrees: the MS in Global Health Policy and Management and the MA in Sustainable International Development.

“Health cannot be developed or improved on its own. It’s very much interdependent on other social aspects like the environment, gender, human rights,” she says. “In health organizations, when we have worked on projects, it has always been with other stakeholders. Through my studies at Heller I am gaining a deeper understanding of the interconnectedness between health and development.”

Ilnazarova grew up in the rocky, snowy mountains of far eastern Tajikistan, in the Badakhshan Region, with limited educational opportunities and access to the Internet. 

“Just to develop yourself, you wanted to go out of the isolated mountainous area. You would use any opportunity to get better education,” she says. When she heard about a nursing program in Pakistan that was accepting applications, she decided to take the entrance exam as a chance to get quality education beyond her country. Her English skills helped her pass—and even earn a scholarship through the Aga khan Health Service.

Upon graduation, she worked in Afghanistan for the French Medical Institute for Mothers and Children in Kabul, first in the neonatal intensive care unit, then as a nursing instructor. She returned to Tajikistan after two and a half years and became a coordinator of Community Health Program at AKHS Tj. She focused on health promotion and disease prevention, organizing trainings for volunteers from villages about family planning, immunization, communicable and non-communicable diseases, breastfeeding, mental health and more.

“Pursuing dual degrees at Heller was a logical next step given my experience in public health and motivation to strengthen my ability to make a greater impact, taking on bigger projects to make larger-scale changes,” says Ilnazarova, who hopes to work for an international development agency in her country such as the World Health Organization or UNICEF. “I’m learning both health and development and understanding problems associated with them. Strategies to address some of the systemic causes of poor health outcomes among vulnerable communities are rooted within broader framework of sustainable development.”

She’s thrilled with the community she’s found at Heller, including professors with open-door policies who ask about her family members, a robust mental health support system and a welcoming religious community. She even found a family from her region of Tajikistan who housed her during her first year, offering some relief from her homesickness.   

“I was told America was very individual where there is no ‘we,’ you are only ‘you.’ I was mentally prepared for that,” she says. “But when I came, I found the whole environment is friendly and helpful, from professors to my colleagues and friends from all around the world. I’m so grateful for everyone and everything.”

Ilnazarova’s studies are supported in part by Open Society Foundation (OSF). The opinions expressed herein are her own and do not necessarily express the view of OSF.