Girl #5 – Nazanin Bagherzadeh, Hong Kong

I met Nazanin in 1995 in Westford, Massachusetts—specifically, Nabnasset Elementary School. She and I were in the same first grade class, and were friends.

My family moved away the following year, but Nazanin and I stayed in touch. We exchanged letters for years, including photos as we grew up. At some point the letters slowed then stopped, and we carried on our separate paths.

Then, one day in August 2015, (likely over a decade since our last contact), we reconnected.

Nazanin is currently pursuing a Ph.D. at City University of Hong Kong[i] where she is focusing on humanitarian aid in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK, or North Korea). Nazanin did not always plan or desire to pursue a Ph.D. She did, however, have her sights on Asia. After visiting Japan in high school, Nazanin craved further exploration of East Asia.

Nazanin began her journey in Scotland, where she moved in 2007 to attend college at the University of Edinburgh. She studied international relations, and hoped to study abroad in Asia. Disappointingly, she failed to earn a place in her first choice program, and instead had to choose between Berlin, Germany or Grenoble, France. Both programs would be conducted in the language of their respective countries—Nazanin spoke neither.

Although Nazanin had studied French only a bit in high school, given that she spoke zero German, the decision was easy. Off to Grenoble she went. Although France certainly was not Asia, Nazanin ultimately found this experience “one of the best things that has every happened to [her].” Her French improved exponentially, and she met wonderful people from all over the world.

Following graduation in 2011, Nazanin moved to Hong Kong to teach English. Finally, she was in Asia.

In 2012, however, Nazanina moved to Bochum, Germany, to begin the first semester of a Master’s in Humanitarian Action—a program with a good track record for getting graduates into the humanitarian field, her ultimate goal.

Her first semester was tough; attempts at learning German were not going well, and she had left behind a whole life with people she loved in Hong Kong. Her second semester brought her to Louvain-la-Neuve, Belgium, where she was at least quite happy to be speaking French again.

For her third semester, she received a grant to conduct research in Indonesia. Her thesis focused on the management of dead bodies after humanitarian disasters. For three months, Nazanin interviewed Indonesian humanitarian workers about their experiences after the explosion of Mount Merapi and the Indian Ocean tsunami. This changed her life. She fell in love with doing research.

It was at this moment that Nazanin decided to pursue a Ph.D. She poured her heart and soul into her MA thesis and graduated in December 2013. She then packed her bags and bought a one-way ticket to Hong Kong with no job and no acceptance to a Ph.D. program yet. The beginning of 2014 was tough. She went back to her old job teaching English.

Nazanin found it demoralizing to have left to do an MA, only to come back and take the same job she had held before grad school. However, she faced limited options since she did not yet know if she would get into the Ph.D. program in Hong Kong—the only one to which she applied.

Nazanin did get into the Ph.D. program and started at City University of Hong Kong in September 2014. Now in her third year, Nazanin is nearing the end of this road. The Ph.D. has been a challenge. But, she loves her research and the opportunities the program has allowed her. Nazanin has spoken at conferences in the UK, Seoul, and Hong Kong, spent time in both South and North Korea, and met fascinating people along the way.[ii]

In her spare time, Nazanin volunteers for the Hong Kong office of Doctors Without Borders, helping the research and human resources teams. Some of her research contributed to a larger project that resulted in a new program in Southeast Asia. Knowing that her research played a role in helping someone access healthcare is, as it should be, a huge source of pride for Nazanin.

At present, Nazanin has no idea where this life might take her. Nazanin hopes to continue doing research on humanitarian aid after completion of her Ph.D., somewhere. Ultimately, she simply wants to be in a role where her research makes a positive impact on people’s lives.

For now, she enjoys exploring new neighborhoods in Hong Kong, trying new food, and singing bad karaoke. Located on Kowloon in a busy neighborhood called Prince Edward, you might find her hiking or running about. (She recently completed her first half marathon.) For those fortunate enough to visit her, expect to be treated to the Star Ferry from Kowloon to Hong Kong Island, to the Temple of Ten Thousand Buddhas, out for some dim sum, and then for drinks at a rooftop bar.


[i] She also serves as a Graduate Teaching Assistant at City University of Hong Kong, teaching Political Dynamics in Asia; State and Development in Northeast Asia; Contemporary International Politics of the Asia-Pacific; Traditions of Inquiry in the Social Sciences; US Politics and Society; and Intelligence and National Security.

[ii] She is also a Contributor for NameNK News, writing regular articles on humanitarian issues in the DPRK (