Victoria Saadat - 2014 Program Participant
At Republic Square in Almaty, Kazakhstan.
What led you to study in Kazakhstan?
The language I was learning when I applied to American Councils Eurasian Regional Language Program (ERLP) was Kazakh, and before that, Russian. While taking Kazakh classes at Stanford, my professor encouraged me to seek out opportunities to study Kazakh in Kazakhstan. One of my friends who recently graduated from Stanford had also been learning Kazakh and recommended that I check out the ERLP for Kazakh language. The reason I sought an international program was because Kazakh is very rarely taught and spoken in the U.S., and there would be no better opportunity to learn it thoroughly than in Kazakhstan!
What attracted you to ERLP other than the opportunity to expand your language skills?
When I read more about the ERLP, I realized how rich of a program it was: American Councils would choose a host family for me, set up a pre-departure orientation (which was two days before departing to my host country), and arrange for local advisors, speaking partners, and a whole host of activities not only in my host city, but throughout Kazakhstan. As I found out during the program, American Councils was supportive the entire time and even after I returned home.
What was your favorite part about living and studying in Kazakhstan?
My host city in Kazakhstan was Almaty, the former capital and current social, economic, and cultural capital located in southeast Kazakhstan. The most captivating aspect of Almaty is its topography. It is a city situated near the bottom of the Tian Shan mountain range, which is visible from many streets in the city itself! These mountains are lovely to hike, as well; I loved taking the gondolas up to the highest hiking area, near Talgar Pass and Peak Nursultan. There, there is a blend of green, natural landscapes and an almost Martian landscape of dark rocks and snow-capped peaks.
What makes the ERLP program in Kazakhstan unique?
American Councils ERLP is a truly unique program because it allows students who are interested in Eurasian languages and culture to be able to have a fantastic study abroad experience in those countries. Not only is the U.S. and abroad staff supportive, informative, and extremely helpful and accessible, but all aspects of the program were well-planned and thought-out in order to provide the most realistic and "local" abroad experience for participants.
Furthermore, the pre-departure orientation (which is one other aspect of the program that I enjoyed) was a place that let me meet participants going to different countries through the Summer 2014 ERLP. This was a wonderful experience, where we shared our experiences (pre-study abroad) and became great friends - we communicate to this day! American Councils basically tried to make every single minute of our study abroad experience terrific and truly positive.
In Astana, Kazakhstan - the capital city!
What did you think of the local staff in Kazakhstan?
The local staff were fantastic! American Councils has a local office in Almaty, where the staff invite you for an orientation during your first week abroad, and then you are assigned a local language partner. Mine was a local student, roughly my age, and he was proficient in English in order to help me with any problems, but most of the time we spoke in Russian and Kazakh. He was very helpful in many aspects of my time in Almaty and was involved in organizing some trips within the city (to Charyn Canyon and to the Big Almaty Lake) and even just went on some walks with me through the city, telling me about special sights we would pass by.
What's one thing you wish you would have done differently during your program?
I would have taken more pictures of the everyday. Even while living in a completely different part of the world, some things became routine, and I didn't notice them after a while. These include the streets, the metro, food, my room at my host family's house, and my host university. One tip I have for students studying abroad: take pictures of (almost) everything! You might think, "But I see this every day and am actually kind of sick of it," but once you come back home, you'll realize that it was the little things that made up a big portion of the wonderful time abroad.
Describe a day in your life in Almaty.
During a typical day, I would wake up around 7:30 a.m. and have breakfast with my host mom and siblings. Breakfast would usually be a kasha (a hot cereal) and tea with cookies, fruit, vegetables, basically anything we felt like preparing that morning! Then, I would head out and walk to the metro station and take a few stops to my university, where I would meet my professor for our morning class sessions. After a couple hours of class, my professor and I would walk to a nearby cafe for lunch together. We would discuss anything, from the weather to what I was thinking about living in Almaty. Sometimes her colleagues would join us, which was lovely because I got to know other locals, definitely something I recommend doing while abroad.
After lunch, we would have a few more hours of lessons, after which I would sometimes go to the "Arman" theater across the street and catch an afternoon movie, which was usually a recently-released Hollywood film dubbed in Russian. Sometimes I would catch up with some local friends I made to go to some of the sights in the city or to just have ice cream and chat. As the sun would set, I would try to make my way back home and then have dinner with my host family, maybe watch the latest TV show (during summer last year, the "hot" show was a series from India that was dubbed into Kazakh), study for tomorrow's class, and sleep at around 11 or 11:30 p.m.
What was your favorite activity outside the normal day-to-day schedule of your program?
Outside of my day-to-day schedule, my favorite activity was the weekend trip to Astana, the capital city of Kazakhstan, which was organized by my host university, KIMEP (Kazakhstan Institute of Management, Economics and Strategic Research). I traveled on an overnight train to Astana with a group of around 10 international students who were also studying at KIMEP on a different summer program. The train ride took us through the Kazakh steppe, which one may think is boring (it was pretty much the same view for hours on end), but I thought it was beautiful! Many Kazakh folk songs describe the beauty of the sun setting on the steppe, and now I have seen with my own eyes why it is, in fact, so captivating.
We spent two days in Astana, which is completely different from Almaty (one of the main reasons the trip to Astana was so valuable for me); It is a newly-built city, where most of the government buildings and offices are located, and where many people in business and government live and work. I would highly recommend to anyone going to Kazakhstan to see both Almaty and Astana in the same trip because it will really put a lot of Kazakh current events, policies, and social and cultural aspects into context and completely increase your understanding of this fascinating Central Asian country.
Hiking with local friends in Shymbulak resort in the mountains above Almaty city.
Can you explain your accommodation a bit more? What did you love about it?
During my two months in Almaty, I lived with a host family near the center of the city. I loved that I could come home to my host mom and host siblings and feel like I was part of a family. This aspect couldn't be more important when studying abroad, especially in Central Asia for two reasons. First, Kazakhstan is off the beaten path when it comes to study abroad, so any sense of belonging and support can be very helpful during the experience. Second, Kazakhs are some of the most hospitable people I've met in my life, and my host family was always there or reachable if I needed help or just wanted to hang out, walk the city, and talk in Kazakh!
What personal, academic, and professional benefits have you reaped from studying abroad in Kazakhstan?
Now that I have had the experience of living and studying in Kazakhstan, I can safely say that I am much more aware of the context of the issues that affect the Kazakh people on a day-to-day basis. As I prepare to go to medical school, I am collaborating with local physicians in Almaty on a new standard of healthcare that could really benefit the people of Almaty in the future. Without the context of culture, language, and society, my contributions and aspirations to continue working with the people of Kazakhstan would not have the impact they have now.
I think that no matter where you study abroad, there is something to be learned from every aspect of your experience. Living with my host family, I saw how Kazakhs can be so hospitable and encouraging to anyone learning Kazakh language, and this, itself, was so inspiring while I was in Almaty and even now back home where I am continuing my language studies.