Monday, August 29, 2016

Exploring Kazakhstan: A Semester Abroad in Almaty

Midshipman 2nd Class Ian Best writes about his experiences during a semester spent studying abroad in Kazakhstan. 

As the ninth largest country in the world with a population slightly over 17 million, Kazakhstan plays an important role in the world. From a historical perspective, this central Asian country has formed the geological and cultural bridge between Europe and Asia for centuries. Traders on the Silk Road in Kazakhstan exchanged beliefs, information, and practices between these two continents.

Today, Kazakhstan continues to serve as a bridge between many countries and has an expanded influence on international politics. Of additional importance, Kazakhstani culture shares many similarities with that of the Russian tradition, including the widespread use of the Russian language.

The Naval Academy provided me the unique opportunity to spend the spring semester of the 2016 academic year in Almaty, the former capital of Kazakhstan and its current largest city. Abroad, I balanced my studies with practical experience in an effort to both appreciate the cultural and political significance of Kazakhstan and to improve my Russian language abilities.

Photo courtesy of MIDN 2/C Ian Best

In Almaty, I attended classes at Kazakhstan National University in the International Relations Department through the American Councils Study Abroad Program. I studied Russian four days a week with Kazakh professors. They focused on phonetics, grammar, reading, and writing. Each day presented a new challenge: sometime my fellow classmates and I would present Russian articles and stories we had read, other times we would discuss new vocabulary and grammar.

My personal favorite topic was Russian idioms. Russian language is extremely rich; it is filled with sayings and expressions with fascinating historical contexts. I did my best to learn as many different idioms as I could so as to better understand the underlying Russian cultural significance and be able to converse more colloquially with the locals.

On Fridays, the American students studied Kazakh language, history, and politics. This was a particularly interesting opportunity for my classmates and me, as Kazakh is a Turkish-based language and shares very few similarities with Russian. We also learned in this class the important role Kazakhstan plays as a key nation in Central Asia and how it balances its many competing foreign influences.

Photo courtesy of MIDN 2/C Ian Best

But I did more than schoolwork. I often took advantage of the spectacular neighboring mountains by skiing or hiking through the foothills. West Point cadets Joseph Woolfork and Tyler Payne and I organized several trips with local tour guides. One trip, for example, found us summiting a mountain. On another, we hiked to a remote point in the hills to visit a century-old yet still functioning monastery.


Other excursions were directly sponsored by American Councils. Once a week, we would visit a site of cultural and often historical significance, ranging from museums to parks to falconry demonstrations. Toward the end of the semester, we traveled to Northern Kazakhstan to visit the cities of Karaganda, Pavlodar, and most importantly the capital Astana.

Each excursion provided excellent opportunities to practice Russian language and gain a better appreciation of Kazakhstan. I enjoyed applying the language skills I was learning in class to real-world situations. I could simultaneously expand my vocabulary and gain a deeper appreciation for this incredible country.

Photo courtesy of MIDN 2/C Ian Best

Not every midshipman is afforded the opportunity to directly experience another country for an entire semester. I will never forget my time abroad and will remain forever grateful to the staff members of the International Programs Office at USNA.

Not only will I fondly remember the incredible people I met overseas and the amazing adventures I had, but I will also apply the cultural and lingual experience I gained in my future career as a naval officer. I hope to bridge cultural gaps during my military career and ultimately bring diverging cultures into closer understanding to strengthen international partnerships.

1 comment:

  1. Kazakhstan is a beautiful country. You were lucky to be there on your study tour.

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