- Associated Press - Thursday, December 25, 2014

LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) - Pakiza Shirinova has spent the year helping American cities save themselves from potential disaster. She flew from Nebraska to New Jersey - sometimes twice a month - to lead community meetings and guide municipal leaders there through the steps of hazard mitigation.

Of course, the Kyrgyzstan native had to overcome a language barrier. Like the time a New Jersey official was trying to tell her about his town’s “would-ah” treatment plant.

The travel was tiring, and she looked forward to the return trips.

“Coming home to Lincoln always feels really good,” she told the Lincoln Journal Star (http://bit.ly/1JNZkVj ). “It feels comfortable.”

The 30-year-old was just months out of grad school at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln when JEO Consulting asked her to coordinate its new East Coast project.

“She’s just one of those people,” said company President Rob Brigham. “She has such an incredible personality.”

Now, she also has ticket for a 22-hour trip that will carry her to her childhood home in Kant, a Columbus-size city in the shadow of her country’s capital and the place she first heard the word Nebraska.

It’s a one-way flight.

Pakiza Shirinova was born several years before her country declared its independence from the Soviet Union, and several years before her parents befriended a young Peace Corps volunteer from America.

“Pakiza’s family basically adopted my son,” said Wayne Drummond, an architecture professor and former department chair at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. “He spent so much time over there at her house.”

Todd Drummond would tell Pakiza about the United States, and the girl wanted to go. As a high school student, she applied for an exchange program three years in a row. She was denied all three times.

The Peace Corps volunteer watched all of this and had an idea. His parents had moved to Crete, Nebraska, and the private college near their new home offered an intensive English language program for international students. He offered to pay her way.

Pakiza was 17. She had never left her country. She’d only flown once before. She landed in Nebraska in June 2002.

And just as her parents had taken care of Todd Drummond when he was so far from home, his parents insisted she stay with them.

She was supposed to stay the summer, but she didn’t fly home until after Christmas. And in those months, Wayne and Gayle Drummond showed her the country, taking her to Washington, Las Vegas, California and Mount Rushmore, which she had seen in a textbook back in Kyrgyzstan.

“It changed the world for me,” she said. “It kind of turned things upside down in a good way.”

After she returned home, she studied for another semester at the American University of Central Asia. But then her father switched jobs, and they couldn’t afford the university, and Pakiza transferred to the Soviet-style Academy of Finance and Economics.

She was miserable.

“It was a drastic change. It was very rigid. It was very dark. I wasn’t learning anything. You follow the process, not the other way around.”

She took a part-time job with the student exchange group that had rejected her own applications in high school. She clerked at first, made copies. But within months, she was traveling Kyrgyzstan, recruiting candidates, conducting the selection process.

In 2009 Pakiza traveled to Crete and moved in with the Drummonds. She graduated with a business degree and worked at UNL’s College of Architecture for a year. Then she started grad school there: community and regional planning.

She felt at home here, now, in Nebraska.

“I’ve been totally immersed,” she said. “And completely Americanized.”

She’d interned at JEO as a grad student, and the company took her on full-time after she got her master’s degree last December.

It also started doing all it could to prevent her from buying that plane ticket.

The clock started ticking after she was handed her master’s degree: 12 months, the term of the Optional Practical Training extension to her student visa. When that expired, she had to go home, back to Kant.

But Pakiza - and JEO - had an option: If she earned an H-1B visa, for those working in a specialty occupation, she could stay longer. The application window opens April 1 but closes quickly under the pressure of far more requests than available slots.

The company helped with her paperwork. But her application was denied, and she knew this would be her last year here.

Still, JEO hasn’t given up. The company hired an immigration attorney to help prepare Pakiza’s application for April 1, 2015. If it’s accepted, she’ll return to Nebraska to resume her work.

“I don’t see myself staying in Kyrgyzstan too long. There’s nothing there.”

She’s surrounded by people who want her to come back. Her co-workers at JEO. The Drummonds, her adopted family, who feel like they’re watching a daughter go off, a long way, to college.

“All of us are very sad,” Wayne Drummond said. “We’re all going to miss her.”

She flies out Jan. 11.

“I kept pushing it back for as long as I could,” she said. “Once you have the date, everything becomes real. There’s a date you’re going to leave the country.”

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