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Guest columnist Sevda Aghayeva comments on her family's journey at Penn. 

Credit: Mollie Benn

Not as formal as Washington, and not as crowded as New York, Philadelphia has always been one of my favorite cities. This conclusion came after traveling across the East Coast with my amazing host family, who had chosen me as an exchange student to stay with them for a year back in 1999. Philadelphia mesmerized me with its coziness, charm, and unique atmosphere that I haven't felt elsewhere. 

Coming from a struggling country after the fiasco of the Soviet Union's breakdown, I suddenly found myself in the middle of blossoming Pennsylvania in the home of the most caring and wonderful host family I could ever imagine. Every day of that year was an adventure, filled with unforgettable emotions, positive vibes, and happiness. My life started to fill with colors as it no longer followed a linear plan. Every morning, I rushed out of bed eager for something new. I felt like a sponge, trying to absorb a vast amount of new information around me, improve my language skills, and live every second of my new life in the best way possible. American culture permeated me from head to toe, and I couldn't imagine going on a ride without shouting “Shotgun!” or eating turkey without gravy.

During one of my trips to Philadelphia, visiting Penn was part of the sightseeing. That trip sparked a new endeavor: stunned by the grandiosity of the campus and inspired by the academic excellence of the faculty, I dreamt of becoming a part of it one day.

After returning to Azerbaijan, I pursued my medical career, which challenged my resilience and grit. The saying “Great things never came from comfort zones” applies not only to me, but to all the medical professionals who dedicate their lives to saving others. They know how much time and effort a medical degree — framed and hung on the wall — takes. It's not simply a job — it's a vocation, a true passion, and a lifetime commitment. The path to putting on a white coat demands the ability to apply clinical thinking, properly analyze information, masterfully establish a trustworthy relationship with patients, and be relentlessly motivated to cure.

Other than clinical activities, I soon started representing Azerbaijan in various international organizations and societies. My multicultural background, fluency in five languages, and personality traits enabled me to create multiple friendships with gastroenterologists and hepatologists across the globe. Worthily representing a country hardly known to many was my top priority, along with an unbeatable desire to keep up my professional level with my colleagues from other countries.

However, I still felt that my academic skills were scarce and that lacking opportunities in Azerbaijan held me back. Despite a successful practical career and numerous international positions, my dream of working with a professional research team and learning from prominent mentors never disappeared. Eventually, though, I made it back to Penn. I am endlessly grateful to my mentors for the priceless opportunity to be part of a strong research team.

Penn fever didn't just end with me. My passion equally affected my children, motivating them to tolerate hardship and push their limits to meet the high standards of Penn applicants. My older daughter's acceptance to Penn last year and her fascination with the school's thriving student life further reinforced my second daughter's aspiration to join this vibrant community with a centuries-long history. Her experience exemplified Penn’s commitment to diversity, offering equal opportunities to all dedicated students irrespective of their background. Luckily, my second daughter was also accepted to Penn. For them, Penn represents more than just an academic institution: it is a beacon of opportunities in the educational process, a hub of cutting-edge research, and a possibility to reunite with family members.

Now in my forties, I worked for 24 years to continuously advance my medical career in Azerbaijan to be eligible to become a clinical researcher at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania, fulfilling a dream I had since my first visit to Penn’s campus.

SEVDA AGHAYEVA is a clinical researcher at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania. Her email is