Originally Published: March 24, 2015 6:02 a.m.
At just 27 years old, Nafset Chenib has accomplished more than many people twice her age.
The Russian-born soprano sings in nine languages and speaks four. She has performed before crowds of thousands in grand concert halls in Moscow and St. Petersburg. She headlined the closing ceremony of the XI Winter Paralympic Games in Sochi in 2014. Pope John Paul II and Vladimir Putin can be counted among her audience.
And she's done it without sight.
Born with a retinal disorder, Chenib could read large letters and distinguish people until she was about 13. Her vision worsened, and surgery failed to correct the problem. Her condition - a mutation of the retina's AIPL1 gene - is currently uncorrectable, but promising research is in trials with mice, she said.
Since Jan. 22, Chenib has been in Prescott Valley, staying with host family Joe and Olga Waesche while she studies for the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL). Passing it will allow her to pursue graduate studies in the United States.
She's considering applying to the Manhattan School of Music in New York or perhaps the San Francisco Conservatory. After being in Moscow for six years, she favors large cities.
Chenib, who studied English by herself using Braille exercise books, wants to pursue a doctorate here for two reasons: flexibility and opportunities for assistance.
"I have more freedom" to select a topic here, she said.
She met a blind grad student at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University who was provided Braille materials.
In Russia, she was not given Braille vocal scores: "My friends dictated me the notes and I wrote them down by hand."
From Prescott resident Christina Robertson - one of 17 Braille music transcribers in the country - she learned about the National Library Service's web-based BARD (Braille and Audio Reading Download) service. It provides access to thousands of books, magazines and musical scores, which can be downloaded and printed on a Braille printer.
Such a service does not exist in Russia, where people are slow to adopt new technology, Chenib said.
"It is a big issue in Russia," she said.
In the United States, she can get assistance and literature.
"It would be much easier for me," she said. "I never received the assistance, just obstacles."
Moses Glidden, a retired Yavapai College professor, is helping Chenib prepare for the TOEFL. He helps her compose short, timed essays - either about a specified subject or a comparison/contrast of a printed lecture and audio lecture on the same topic.
"It's just been an astounding experience," Glidden said, adding that he started off fearful of failing and wanting to get out of tutoring Chenib.
Then he started working with her.
"She is brilliant and accomplished in so many languages," Glidden said. "Here is a woman that could go to the foot of the Hoover Dam and blast it to pieces with her voice."
They share a love of Dostoyevsky. And Glidden, who majored in history, loves the history of Russia. Chenib has written beautiful stories about her grandmother's life in Russia in the 1930s.
"She has done an incredible job, everything I've asked her and more," Glidden said. "I've been looking forward to it."
Chenib, too, looks forward to their lessons. "It's so interesting to have conversations with him," she said of Glidden.
Chenib first met the Waesches in January, when they hosted her for a month through Rotary International's New Generation Service Exchange program. It's a short-term exchange program for young professionals, Rotarian Joe Waesche explained.
Joe's wife, Olga, is from Russia, so they got along well. They visited Chenib while in Russia last October, and when she talked about getting a doctorate in the U.S., they invited her to stay with them while she prepped for the TOEFL test and applied to schools.
"We feel very strongly about her as a family member," Waesche said. "We're going to do everything we can to help her accomplish that."
Chenib appreciates the help. "I'm happy with all the people that I have in my life," she said.
In Russia, she was told Americans are closed off and unfriendly - but she has not found that to be true.
"They are very open to me," she said of the folks she knows here. "They opened a new world for me."
Follow Arlene Hittle on Twitter @ahittle_dc