Director of the British Council in Azerbaijan considers her work in our country to be successful so far. Today, the British Council plays an important role in relations between the UK and Azerbaijan. "Our guest” in the "Kaspi” newspaper for this week is Elizabeth White, director of the British Council in Azerbaijan, who says their main objective is improving English language skills, providing internationally recognized tests, contributing to the art cooperation and increasing the potentials of the higher education centers and civic society.
I’m the child of my generation
- Ms. White, where do you get your news in this day and age where there are no shortage of information resources?
- I’m the child of my generation. I’m a newspaper person through and through and I have grown up with newspapers. My father is 90 years old and lives in France. He regularly reads newspapers. I was born before the age of internet. As such, I pay attention to print media. This applies to all newspapers and magazines. I read newspapers everyday. I respect the tradition of reading newspapers. I think I can get an overview of the current events by taking a glance at the internet. But if I want to know about something in depth, then I read newspapers and I make sure I check out different sources. There are some newspapers that I trust. I consider their materials to be more thorough. There are many popular and widely read newspapers in the UK and there are those who are intellectual. I consume both kinds to get a general information. I also read Azerbaijani newspapers to improve my language skills. I have no intention of commenting on the newspapers. I think that learning this language will allow me to read and discuss what’s written in these papers.
- When you were appointed the head of the British Council in Azerbaijan, you said that you had served in Russia, Kazakhstan and Arabic countries but had personally applied to work in Azerbaijan. What drew you to our country? Is there any backstory?
- I met the media workers in London who attended the project for journalists held by the British Council. This was my first impression of Azerbaijan. But it’s not the only reason. My grandfather was a Scottish businessman. I never got to meet him. He passed away when my mother was 11. I only know him from this portrait of him where he is wearing traditional Scottish clothing. He had left some books and photos for my mother. These photo albums were mostly filled with his travel photos. The photos would depict landscapes, buildings, cities and nature. There were no notes on them. In one of the pictures my grandfather was wearing a long coat, smoking cigar and holding a newspaper. A sea could be seen on the background. There was a note scribbled underneath the photo that said "Jimmy in Baku”. He had visited Baku back then as a representative of an oil company. Who knows, maybe the newspaper my grandfather was holding was "Kaspi”. I consider myself very lucky to have the opportunity to work in Azerbaijan.
- Are you pleased with your choice? Did Azerbaijan surprise you in any way?
- Of course, it lived up to my expectations. I observed an interesting life here. I’ve been living here for four years now. I am familiar with the history, culture and traditions of this country. I have also learned some Azerbaijani. Before coming to Azerbaijan, I was hoping for interesting and successful work environment. I had worked in Libya previously. The very first day I arrived in Baku, I went out of my hotel to have a look around. I walked alone for a while. I was wondering how my life would be like in this place. It was May 9 and I ran into a war veteran who was wearing a jacket covered with medals. He looked older than 80. His hair was all gray. I approached him and said in Russian: "Congratulations! You fought for your homeland!”. He looked at me with a surprised look on his face and I became a little wary. I thought "Maybe I said something wrong” and wanted to walk away. But then the veteran beckoned me closed and asked: "Do you like roses”? I said "Of course!”. He put his hand in his pocket and took out a rose. The rose smelled like heaven. This was my first experience in Baku. Azerbaijanis surprised me with their friendliness and hospitality.
We have done plenty of work in Azerbaijan
- You once said that you would be working on several projects to improve cultural and educational ties between Azerbaijan and the UK. Did you manage to turn your ideas into a reality? Are you satisfied with what you have achieved so far?
- I always have high expectations from myself. So, I cannot say I am completely satisfied with what we have achieved. But still, we have done a great deal in Azerbaijan. Another good reason for why I work in the British Council is that we do not have a standardized program for all countries. Neither we, nor does London chooses these programs. The programs implemented by the Council are chosen based on the ideas and discoveries of the people. I have done many different projects related to education and culture since I’ve been working in Azerbaijan. We recently visited Gabala. We attended the opening ceremony of a vocational school there. Tourism has developed considerably in Azerbaijan in the last few years. Which is why we support such vocational schools. On top of teaching curriculum, we also want to teach the students practical skills. We cooperate with 24 hotels in Azerbaijan and have an education center. Those who want to work in these hotels study in the education center for four days. And on the fifth day, they are taken to a 5-star hotel where they can learn practical skills. And we have another project on improving English skills and we are implementing it in 11 regions of Azerbaijan. The objective is to train teachers and improve their English. I am not from London myself, I come from the north of England. Just like England does not consist of London, Azerbaijan does not consist of Baku alone. Thus, I’m happy that our projects is not limited to Baku but extend to the regions as well. Not only children but also older teachers come to learn English with enthusiasm in the regions.
Theatre, education and media...
- British Council have had projects on Azerbaijani theatres. Theatres in Azerbaijan have not yet forgotten William Shakespeare. We’d like to know your opinion on different traditions and structures.
- I am proud of the fact that Shakespeare’s plays have been staged in Azerbaijani theatres. The 400th anniversary of the prominent playwright was celebrated last year. "King Lear”, "Hamlet” and his other plays were performed. We are very happy that London Theatre came to Azerbaijan last year and Shakespeare’s play was performed at the National Drama Theatre. There were a lot of spectators in the hall and they couldn’t stop applauding. We will have another Shakespeare event for April 24 next year. We will introduce a competition for young people and designers as part of that event.
- The Great Britain has one of the leading education systems in the world. We would like to know the number of Azerbaijanis who have studied in the UK so far. And how has British Council contributed to the education system in your country?
- Many Azerbaijani students do their Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees at British universities. The State Program on Education abroad was a success. Many students who applied to the program had chosen British Universities. British embassy also has a scholarship program for those who want to study in the UK. We concluded our choices for the next year not that long ago. We also provide information for students who want to study in British universities. It’s very important. When we met with the Minister of Education he said "It’s not only important that we send our students to the UK to study. We also want to improve universities in Azerbaijan”. The employability skills of the students in the universities need improving. We cooperate closely with the Ministry of Education to improve the quality of education in the higher education centers. We are trying to hold exchange programs between the Azerbaijani and British universities. We also work closely with the general education schools to improve the level of English language teaching at the secondary schools.
- Many media representatives attended the "Business journalism” project jointly organized by the British Embassy and Pasha Bank. The project was successfully implemented. But there are journalists who still ask about how they can sign up for the program. Are you thinking of any other projects for journalists in the future?
- As you mentioned, our "Business journalism” project was successfully implemented. It was, indeed, an interesting and important project. Many journalists benefited from this project which lasted for 7 years. Their visit to London as part of the program was a huge experience for them. Unfortunately, we have to end the project. There were financial reasons behind it. But our cooperation with journalists continue.
When I’m 90
- You have lived here for 5 years. If you could go back in time and erase these years from your life, what would you be missing out on?
- I would cry... When you apply for a job in the British Council, you may be sent to work in various places. You learn a lot of things in the countries where you work. In each of these places, you experience something new, something important. I learned all that’s necessary about the culture and the society of Azerbaijan. That’s why I consider these last 5 years to be important. I saw Azerbaijan’s light, I tasted your tea here. This gives me a lot more information about Azerbaijan than I could possibly get from reading about it on the internet or newspapers.
- You are heading an organization in our country that has branches all over the world. As a woman, do you find these constant trips, projects and events to be exhausting?
- I would say that these are indeed challenging for a middle-aged woman. But it also has many advantages: they are very pleasant to me in many countries I visit. They show me a great deal of respect when they know my profession. On the other hand though, a person should enjoy what they are doing. I think one should accomplish three things in life: build a home, start a family and plant a tree. I think publishing the "Kaspi” newspaper is one of these great accomplishments.
- Is it true that you donated your own television to someone else and have no TV of your own? Do you consider women more generous in general?
- I donated my TV because I wasn’t watching that big black box anyways. As for women being more generous, I have met both men and women who were very generous. Maybe the generosity depends on the person.
- Do you use social networks? Do you think the business woman should definitely socialize?
- I have accounts on the social media. But I am not a very active user. However, I still follow what my friends share. I think when I’m 90 and have plenty of free time I will be active on the social media (laughs).