Natalie Hall - 2016 Program Participant

What inspired you to go abroad?

I was first inspired to go abroad because even as a child, I loved traveling overseas. It offered me the ability to see, touch, and understand things that I may have heard or read about before but was unable to really comprehend and appreciate. Furthermore, I wanted to drastically improve my Russian. Everyone who I talked to about the program highly encouraged me to study abroad in a Russian speaking country. They said that my speaking and listening would get even better after being abroad for a few months.

Camel in Turkestan
Titan the Camel, in Turkestan with the Mausoleum of Kohja Ahmed Yassaoui in the background

Why did you choose American Councils?

I picked American Councils (formerly known as the American Council of Teachers of Russian) because it is a nationally known and ranked program for its Russian learning programs. American Councils programs run the summer part of the Flagship program and CLS through the U.S. Department of State, so I knew that this would be the best possible program for me to improve my Russian. Furthermore, they were the only program that offered the same level of Russian language training in Kazakhstan as would be provided in Russia. The American Councils program was also one of the few programs that fit within the travel restrictions placed by the Boren Scholarship. 

What was your favorite part about Almaty? 

My favorite things about Almaty were its proximity to the beautiful Tianshan Mountains, its cafes, and that the city was easy to access. The mountains were visible from almost everywhere in the city and always reminded me of home. Going hiking, skiing, and seeing the truly incredible nature that exists just an hour's drive out of the city was a great way to escape and was truly awe inspiring. 

Almaty also has a large variety of cafes, generally with really good food and tea, where we could sit for hours -- doing our homework, meeting up with friends, and chatting. Most cafes were also open late at night and some had great live music. 

Lastly, Almaty was a very accessible city. Using the bus, gypsy cabs, and walking, it's easy to get almost anywhere in the entire city. Also, Almaty has an airport and rail lines that connect to the rest of Kazakhstan. This made it a great central hub to live in and and easy to return from various travels.

Sunrise in Almaty, Kazakhstan
Sunrises this stunning were commonplace, rising here over the Tianshan Mountains and Kok Tobe in Almaty

What made your experience abroad unique?

I think being in Kazakhstan itself made the entire experience unique. People rarely travel there, and there's so much to see. It's really and truly a land of many wonders and contrasts. I had the opportunity to visit Muslim holy sites, sunbathe on the Caspian Sea, ride a camel, and go ice skating at the highest ice skating rink in the world.

Kazakhstan, in terms of both geography and people, is a beautiful and diverse place. The unique blend of cultures, languages, and practices made for some really interesting and awesome food, and games. I tried horse meat in beshbarmak, had plov and kumis for the first time while there, and went to my first legitimate European style football (soccer game). 

It was a truly remarkable and engaging experience. 

How did local staff support you throughout your program? 

The local staff on my program were really helpful. I was able to go to them with any problems I was having whether it be with a host family, a teacher, an assignment, or I was just having an awful day. Moreover, Harry, our Resident Director, and our local contacts did an incredible job organizing our Regional Field Studies (RFSs); we got to go to truly incredible places, and we (miraculously) made it there and back again without any serious injury. If it hadn't been for Harry and his meticulous planning, I don't think we would have gotten to go to Kolsai and Kaiyandi lakes, or to see Cheren Canyon.

What's one thing you wish you would have done differently?

I wish I had experienced the nightlife in Kazakhstan a little bit more. I went out occasionally, but there were some really cool lounges and dance events that I wish I'd explored some more. All the same, I'm also glad that I stayed at home as often as I did because I had the opportunity to really get to know and become very close with my host family.

Khan Shatir in Astana, Kazakhstan
Khan Shatir in Astana, the capital of Kazakhstan.

Describe a typical day in the life of your program. 

Everyday I would wake up, and take in (and sometimes take a picture) of the incredible sunrise over the Tianshan Mountains. I would meet my host mom in the kitchen where she would make me breakfast. She would drink tea as I ate and left for school. I walked to the bus stop about two blocks from my house and got on a bus headed downtown towards the university. I would try to hit the window of time before rush hour, which was around 7:30 a.m. 

I'd get off at my stop, walk to the university, and start classes at eight. We had class until noon most days, and then as a group we would go to our favorite cafes or the only McDonald's in Kazakhstan. After lunch we'd generally split up to work on our homework, staying out until around 4 p.m. before going home and eating with our host families. 

Evenings were spent either working on my reading at home with my host sisters or out at the movies with friends. The weekends were when we had most of our program excursions, usually either out in nature or to local museums. On weekends we also had more time to ourselves for exploring, hiking, and trips to the mountains.

What did you enjoy doing in your free time?

In my free time I enjoyed hanging out with my American and Kazakh friends in cafes or at the mall, seeing American and/or Russian films in Russian, reading books, hiking, and taking long walks around the city. 

What was your accommodation like? What did you like best about it? 

I lived with two host families during my time abroad. I enjoyed living with them because it was a truly immersive language and culture experience, and I became really close with my host family--including my extended aunts, cousins, and grandparents. Being a part of a family really enriched my time in Kazakhstan--hearing their stories, histories, and hearing my grandmothers sing old folk songs opened my eyes to Kazakh history and culture. Debating politics with my host dad every night forced me to think on my feet in another language. 

Kolsai Lake, Kazakhstan
Kolsai Lake, Kazakhstan - the submerged trees came from an earthquake that flooded the valley with freezing water..

What is one thing every participant should know before participating in your program? 

Every participant should know that Kazakhstan functions with its own set of rules. There is American time, and there is Kazakh time (slower and more laid back). Tea is the remedy for everything (cold, stomachache, blisters, boy problems), horse meat is considered to be the healthiest of meats, and the cold in all forms (including air conditioning and stone/tile floors) is bad, and therefore should be avoided at all costs. Like every society, Kazakhstani society has its own rules, and at least for the first little bit, you're not going to know how to live like a Kazakh, and that's okay!

My best advice to people going to Kazakhstan or really anyone going abroad is make mistakes! Fail hard and fail often! It's ok to make mistakes; it's the fastest way to learn about new cultures and lifestyles, and once the rules come to you they will absolutely stay with you.

Now that you're home, how has your program abroad impacted your life?

My time abroad completely changed my life. I see the world in an entirely different way. I now have a grasp on the Russian, Kazakh, Georgian, and Ukrainian perspectives on life. I grew more sensitive to sound--Kazakhstan was just quieter than the states. I developed an acquired taste for Kazakh and Uzbek food, and I now treat new people and situations differently than I used to, with more open curiosity and compassion.

Would you recommend your program to others? Why?

Absolutely. My Russian got so much better and my abroad experience was truly unique and utterly incredible.