Kazakhstan: Changing Mindsets

We had such an exciting last 2 weeks! Mrs. Sandu (my host), Maile (a fellow MIT student), and I ended up traveling to one of the biggest cities in Kazakhstan: Almaty. The gorgeous backdrop of the mountains, the warmer temperatures, and the many cultural destinations made visiting  there a must. Unfortunately for me, halfway through the visit, I came down with some respiratory virus that had me cooped up inside for a few days. No worries – I’m close to a full recovery. I’m fortunate that since returning to MIT, I have had more time to reflect on the many experiences I had over IAP.

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Standing against the mountains of Almaty

When you do a Google search on Kazakhstan you won’t find information that does it any favors. In fact, you might be scared – at least I was when I read up on bits of Semey’s history. Sure, Semey is not the flashiest, the grandest, or the most diverse city in the world, but it’s safe and has its own small town charm. It’s not what Google would lead you to believe—it has strengths and weaknesses like any other country. Hopefully this final blog post gives even more insight and maybe even changes a few minds too.

The most difficult aspect of my journey to Kazakhstan had nothing to do with being in Kazakhstan, but everything to do with making it here. Mrs. Sandu has traveled to America before and whenever she mentioned Kazakhstan to Americans they honed in on the “stan” part and would make baseless conclusions (not realizing that the country is located in Central Asia and not the Middle East). Well, my parents were no different. They, Nigerian Christians, were beyond furious that their daughter wanted to travel there and it didn’t help that the country is majority Muslim (mind you, Nigeria is the same way). I tried to understand where they were coming from. Nigeria, both in the past and present has had serious issues with the differing religions and my parents even lived through a civil war. For my part it took serious explaining why MIT GTL was sending me there. Even so, they weren’t fully convinced which made the journey to Semey all the more difficult. I made it my mission to call, message, and send photos whenever I could. And it worked! They saw me teaching, on the mountains, eating local foods, and they began to learn how people there lived.

The other day my mom sent this message on WhatsApp: “Wow, my daughter. You make me proud. Keep it up. I love you.” My mom rarely says things like this and it meant a lot to me. My dad has also been equally supportive. All it took was less than 3 weeks to flip my parents’ outlook on life here.

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Kazakh Cultural Day was an awesome event

Even for the short 3 weeks that I came to learn more about this life in Kazakhstan, it was easy to see the rapid change happening here. The structure of Kazakh society fascinated me. The country is not at all super religious and is diverse with the over 120 different cultures that thrive within it. Even so, the gap between the pre- and post-Soviet Union generations is shocking. As I mentioned in my last blog post, interactions with the older generations could be… difficult, but the students I met and talked to at NIS were increasingly globally aware. I was constantly asked for my Instagram and at one point a student knew about a new Ariana Grande’s song before I did. Everyone mentions “time” as the biggest factor to this country’s growth – and it’s true. From what I understand they need time for the capital of Astana to finish its construction plans and to be an even stronger city within Central Asia. They need time for the education system to develop future leaders. I learned that they need time for the country to no longer suffer from the collapse of the Soviet Union. I was able to witness firsthand how the country is rapidly changing.

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For me, I’d say I’ve changed too. I get how cliché that sounds, but I came to this country nervous, excited, and I left my first international experience as an MIT student with mixed feelings about a lot of things. Coming back to campus has been difficult. In Kazakhstan for some reason, I felt super comfortable sharing my passions, my enthusiasm, and my thoughts with all these people while also gaining just as much information about others.  Going from talking about differences in the structure of Kazakh and American life and enjoying the culture to now having conversations about classes or busy workloads is a huge adjustment. My time in Kazakhstan was not perfect, but it allowed me to learn so much. I’ll likely only realize the full impact of my time there later on. Kazakhstan was at one point just a simple name I’d occasionally see on a map and now it is a place that I look at and connect with such heartwarming memories.

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We gave a presentation about our MIT experiences

I had a blast teaching at NIS- Semey. Thank you all for the wonderful opportunity!

Stacy Godfreey-Igwe Bio Photo

Stacy Godfreey-Igwe is a member of the class 2022 studying Mechanical Engineering. This independent activities period, she taught chemistry & leadership to students in Semey, Kazakhstan.