Kazakhstan may have sent Borat overseas to learn about America, but next summer 15 students will travel in the opposite direction as part of the Yale Central Asia Initiative’s new “Summer in Kazakhstan” program.
The students will live in Almaty, Kazakhstan for eight weeks beginning in early June, partaking in individual research opportunities and internships in addition to general travel. The program, which is not formally sponsored by the University, is still in the process of attracting work opportunities in the energy, law, finance and NGO sectors. Students are also encouraged to seek and create their own internship and research agendas in the country.
The specifics of the trip have not yet been determined, coordinator Michal Benedykcinski ’09 said, because many of the trip’s details are based on students’ own interests.
“Getting involved in something new will be very exciting because there’s lots of creating that’s going on and that’s something you won’t find in other summer programs,” Benedykcinski said. “We’re talking to people who get accepted and asking what direction they’d like to take.”
The country has recently been thrust into the national spotlight following the release of the recent hit comedy film, “Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan.”
Students accepted in the January application process will be required to attend pre-orientation activities during the spring semester, comprising guest lectures and discussion seminars, in order to give them background for the summer experience. But because of Yale’s limited experience with Kazakhstan, it will be challenging to fully prepare students for the experience, co-executive director J.T. Kennedy ’09 said.
“We can’t give an orientation of ‘This is how people live in Kazakhstan,’ but as far as the culture shock issue goes … we’ll all be living close together in amity so we’ll be able to support each other in whatever we’re doing,” Kennedy said.
According to program adviser and political science professor Keith Darden, “Summer in Kazakhstan” represents a revival of the Central Asia Initiative program, started in 2002, and is indicative of a growing interest in Central Asian affairs. The program is also significant, he said, because of the increasing significance of Central Asia in issues of academic and international interest.
“No major university has strong contacts in this region,” Darden said. “As Yale took the initiative to go into China, and we’ve had long term benefits stemming from that, this is a part of work that’s strategically important.”
“Summer in Kazakhstan” executive directors Sean Jackowitz ’08 and Kennedy began planning the project in September, out of their own personal interests in a region whose importance they said goes unacknowledged at Yale.
“When you look at issues like terrorism, oil, transitional government-building democracies, the rise of China, all these issues play out in Central Asia,” Jackowitz said. “There’s this really exciting part of the world that Yale just doesn’t focus any attention on.”
Though the program is similar to the international Bulldogs internship programs, it is currently unaffiliated with Yale and entirely student-coordinated. As a result, “Summer in Kazakhstan” does not receive Yale funding, and the program encourages students to apply for individual travel grants offered by different agencies in the Yale community. Program coordinators said they hope the program will become a UCS-funded “Bulldogs in Kazakhstan” program in the next few years.
Kennedy, who studies Chinese and East Asian affairs at Yale, said the trip will be integral to his understanding of China, since study of the region requires attention to the countries around it, especially those China may try to influence or extract resources from.
“A lot of people think it’s weird or they don’t really understand why we’re going to Kazakhstan … but the country has some of the largest untapped oil reserves and as much as nine percent GDP growth, approximately the same as China,” he said.
There is not currently a Central Asian studies major at Yale, and according to Benedykcinski, Darden’s fall seminar on nationalism and identity is the closest a Yale class has ever come to exploring the region. Benedykcinski said more courses and faculty are needed in order to promote Cental Asian studies, and that the “Summer in Kazakhstan” program may help establish Kazakhstan-Yale connections toward this end.
“The most important thing to do is to establish contacts in the region,” Benedykcinski said. “Some Yale professors have private contacts but there aren’t any in Kazakhstan connected to the Yale network. Then later on we could recruit professors from the region or send more people over there.”
Kennedy also highlighted the program’s 15-person size, which he said would garner more prestige for the visiting students.
“I think companies and government offices are much more willing to give a talk or tour to a delegation of 15 Yale students than two students who are spending their summers in Kazakhstan,” Kennedy said. “It makes more sense to bring over a group.”
In the meantime, Jackowitz and Kennedy are at work finding potential candidates for the program, and they are optimistic about increased Kazakhstan and Central Asia awareness on campus once travelers return. A compilation of students’ writings abroad will be published next fall.
“I’m hoping to show to the Yale student body that there’s this region in the world that’s about more than just a funny character from a movie,” Jackowitz said.