Kazakhstan’s International Student Ambassadors

Kazakhstan’s Bolashak International Scholarship Program has entered its 20th year of sending the country’s best and brightest to study abroad with the promise that they will return home and spend five years applying what they’ve learned to further Kazakhstan’s development.

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Being the Bolashak scholarship winner also means to show the positive sides of Kazakhstan as the students represent the country abroad.

It has been highly successful and well received internationally with more than 6,500 Kazakhstan students split roughly equally between men and women from 29 of the country’s many nationalities and ethnicities studying abroad.

So EdgeKz spoke with some of these students about their experiences and their expectations being the first generation to grow up in an independent Kazakhstan.

“You Learn More From People”
Though they go abroad to study, these students learn important lessons outside the classroom. Kuanysh Taishibekov, 26, from Karaganda, is about to finish a masters degree in electrical power and energy engineering at George Washington University in Washington, DC. He says diplomacy is one unexpected skill that came to him through the program.

“(At George Washington University), we have a lot of kids that are sons and daughters of senators and congressmen; it’s interesting. When you’re there, it’s not all academic: you learn to be a diplomat because you’re in DC and there are lots of embassies there and you communicate with our embassy, the Kazakhstan embassy there.” Taishibekov has already put this diplomacy to use as a member of his university’s student governing board and as president of the Kazakhstan Student Association in Washington, DC.

“I learned to become informal; I learned to become friendly,” said Rakhila Lala Ibildayeva, 25, from Taraz (pictured at right). “I think it was in me, it just developed there.” Ibildayeva works in Astana and got her masters degree in software engineering at Carnegie Mellon University Silicon Valley. “There, you get CEOs who walk around in shorts and sandals and treat you the same way they’d treat their executive of, I don’t know, finance. People there are really humble.” Ibildayeva said she’s trying to spread this more down-to-earth attitude in Astana.

Kymbat Yeltayeva, 24, from Kokshetau, completed her masters degree in advanced computer science at Manchester University. “You learn more, I think, from people. I did my masters in one year … and you know, in one year you cannot learn a lot. But you can learn a lot from other people you meet.”

The program often provides the students with excellent international networking opportunities, which benefit them later as they work in international government or international corporate positions. “You get a lot of friends from all over the world,” Taishibekov said. “It helps a lot in the future: who knows what’s going to happen in the future? So if you need something, like you’re going to open a big company, … you can contact them.”

Bolashak students get months or years of language training before their courses of study to help them integrate with their host countries, but the training is often done in Kazakhstan and the first days and weeks can be frightening for the students. “I had my English course in London and at that time my English was terrible; I think it was pre-intermediate or something. So when a person started to say something to me, I was frightened, like ‘What is he saying, oh my gosh, what am I going to do?’,” Yeltayeva said.

Taishibekov threw himself into work. “In the beginning, you spend all your time focused on academic studies, thinking all the time, ‘I need to study more, I need to study more, I want to show my country from a good perspective.’ … And then when you see that people on Friday or Saturday go outside, you start to think, ‘Maybe I can go out, because I’m spending too much time in the library.’ Like 10 hours, 12 hours is normal. So then you start to go out. Sometimes.”

“We Are All Ambassadors”
Showing the positive sides of Kazakhstan is understood to be an important role for scholarship winners. “We are all ambassadors there,” said Taishibekov.

“Our country sends us to study and we are paying back by introducing our country,” said Yeltayeva. “You meet people and they say, ‘Oh, Kazakhstan, I’ve never heard about it.’ And after they speak to you, they say, ‘Oh, I’d want to visit it, maybe I’d want to open some business there.’”

“Walking, talking, breathing marketing,” added Ibildayeva
These student ambassadors, of course, also have to make time to study—but it turns out studying in a foreign language and a foreign culture isn’t all that difficult. The students interviewed by EdgeKz all agreed that they were academically well prepared for their courses abroad, though the independent nature of education in the U.S. and U.K. was something new.

“In the American educational system, you mature quicker,” said Maksat Zhetynz, 24, from Almaty. He’s doing a bachelors degree in nuclear engineering at Pennsylvania State University. “You’re on your own. You have to choose everything; your path. You have to find the right balance of time management.” He said the experience of independence was a good one.

“You’re a Foreigner; What Are You Doing?”
Living and studying abroad—particularly from a country many are not familiar with—can also be difficult. “When I applied to the governing board of my university, there were, like, I think three candidates, all Americans. And they were like, ‘You’re a foreigner, what are you doing? It’s not your job; your job is to study.’ … I was surprised.” But he was elected to the board in the end. “Yeah, I think the international students voted for me, all international students,” he said.

Idibayeva said she had to break out of a Kazakh clique when she first arrived in Boston for her language program. “They had a pretty big group of Kazakh people who would generally hang out with each other only. And I was like, ‘Why did you come here?’ … I would go out and actually date foreign guys and actually see what life there was like. And people would get mad at me for that!” She was criticized for leaving the group, she said. “I was like, ‘Well, I don’t want to hang out with you 24-7.’”

But if she had too much Kazakh company at first, she was soon to experience the opposite. “In California, I was the only Kazakh who went to school (there), ever,” said Ibildayeva. “And I taishibekov_for_bolashak_edge_august_2013_smallerliterally didn’t have anyone to talk to in Russian or Kazakh for weeks on end. I believe I actually got the 10,000 hours of English practice right there. … I believe it helped me out a lot. I’m both thankful, but I realize it’s not necessarily the best experience I could get, because after I came back, I felt lonely.” It turned out that fitting in in Astana, after three years in the U.S., was as difficult as getting used to a brand new culture. “It took me a while to figure things out,” she said. “I felt like I didn’t fit in at all; I felt miserable.” She said she felt more warmth from strangers as a foreigner in the U.S. than as just another Kazakh in Astana.

If reentering Kazakh culture can be difficult after a long time abroad, at least entering the economy doesn’t seem to be. Yeltayeva attended a job fair and had a job within two weeks. Ibildayeva came to Astana after getting a call from a friend who said his boss was looking to hire someone. “He was like, three questions: ‘When can you start, how much do you want, and can you start earlier?’” Taishibekov, who graduates in December, is already weighing different options.

“We’re All the Future of Kazakhstan”
All four students quoted in this story are committed to working in Kazakhstan for five years, but beyond that their feelings of responsibility to their country differ.

1380090469We need to share our knowledge with our country, because it’s because of our president we’re there, and (the Bolashak scholarship) is a big advantage compared to other countries,” Yeltayeva said. “When I ask other people (who have) some kind of scholarship, it’s totally different. They’re like, ‘Wow, as long as you study, you don’t have to do anything?’ American people are especially surprised. They’re like, ‘I want to become a citizen of Kazakhstan!’”

But she said she doesn’t feel a responsibility because of the program itself. “It’s my responsibility not because they paid (for my education), but because I live in Kazakhstan, I was born here, I’m Kazakh.”

Ibildayeva feels very differently. “Do I think I owe a lot? No, I don’t think so. Because after I came back, I was so disappointed. … We are developing really fast. But with the money that we have, we are supposed to live like people live in the U.A.E. and, I’m sorry, it is not there yet.”

But she says she’s contributing at work nonetheless. “I’m telling them how people do certain things (in the U.S.). And they pick up things if they like them for here. And that’s how the experience is being transferred through me. … The company is changing and becoming different from whatever we have in the IT market here in Astana because of me and a couple of other people who went to school in the U.K., in Malaysia and in Singapore.” She believes her work is aiding Kazakhstan’s development. “We’re developing an innovative product, which actually has all the chances of becoming a global product. And I’m so proud that we made it here, us, with these hands. All the people, local guys who didn’t go to a fancy school … I do want stuff like that happening here.”

“I see lots of opportunities in my country, lots of opportunities to open services, and it seems so easy,” said Zhetynz. He said the other members of a Kazakh alliance of students in the U.S. share the same vision for developing their country. “I think it won’t be that hard, partly because our government also helps, especially small and medium businesses. [It] helps people to open new organizations.”

“We’re all the future of Kazakhstan. We need to be together, we need to be united,” said Taishibekov.

The four say they’d go abroad again, but will always come back to Kazakhstan. “I will have to go abroad to be able to contribute more to this country than being inside,” said Ibildayeva. She has dreams of creating a local Silicon Valley in Taraz, of creating educational institutions the will expose Kazakh kids to more professional options than she thinks they currently see. But all these, she says, “will take a lot of money, a lot of investment, a lot of other drivers, people, all of that … And there’s no way I see right now that I can do it while staying here. I need this foreign experience. I need this foreign money … to make it happen here.”

“I see my life only in Kazakhstan,” Taishibekov said. “But if you want to get more knowledge or an internship (abroad) … you will learn other cultures and bring that kind of culture, that kind of experience, the advantages they have, to Kazakhstan. And share it here.”

Of course, sharing only works if people in Kazakhstan are receptive to new ideas. “If it happens naturally, they are (receptive),” said Ibildayeva. “I do not go around saying, ‘Well, in our school we did this, this and this.’ It never gets accepted.”

However, as more Bolashak graduates are taking leadership positions, Zhetynz said, “The situation is changing in a good way.” And despite the challenges ahead, these Bolashak scholars all seem inspired to keep working. “I learned that nothing is impossible,” said Yeltabayeva about her experience. “It was difficult, but then I learned that if you study hard, if you set your goal, you’ll achieve it … All my life, I’ll always remember that everything is in your hands; whatever you want, you will achieve it.”

This article first appeared in EdgeKz Magazine (www.edgekz.com) and is reprinted here with permission.