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Big Dreams, Long Odds in Kazakhstan

Six students and their Peace Corps teacher in a fading village make a bold try for something better.

by Dariya Tsyrenzhapova 15 November 2011

KYZYLZHAR, Kazakhstan | The clock was ticking, and Asemgul Maratova’s mind raced to solve 16 multiple-choice questions within a quarter of an hour. It was a Saturday morning in October and she was sitting with more than 700 14- to 16-year-olds from Kazakhstan’s northwestern Aktobe province, competing for a chance to live and study in the United States for a year.


The odds against Maratova and her five classmates were long – seemingly even against their making it to the exam room.


White and some students cram for the FLEX exam with up-to-date books that he bought himself.


After two months of daily test preparation, they had awoken that morning before the sun rose on Kyzylzhar, their village some 15 kilometers from Aktobe, the provincial capital, where the test would be held. They would catch the 7 a.m. bus, one of only five running to the city that day.


The six students and their teacher had arrived at the stop in plenty of time – with 20 minutes to spare – only to see the bus pulling out early, leaving the group standing in the dusk at the edge of town.


Kyzylzhar is home to 2,000 people, strung along three unpaved streets. A center for agriculture in Soviet times, it has suffered a long decline, and many of those with jobs commute to Aktobe. With a median monthly salary of $240, half that of the province overall, the village has little to offer an ambitious young person. The two-story secondary school is the heart of the community; rebuilt in 2007, it is the only building in the area with stable Internet access, gas, and running water.


For students like Maratova, the path to upward mobility is arduous, but passing the test to get into FLEX, the Future Leaders Exchange Program, could give them a huge leg up. A FLEX grant can mean a chance to enter a prestigious university and get a well-paid job upon graduation. To get there, though, they must pass a short test to determine their English-language proficiency. Then there’s another, longer, English-language test and a composition to write. Those who pass both rounds go on to a final interview stage.


Their teacher, 24-year-old Peace Corps volunteer Alex White, seemed almost as nervous about the test as they did. For the last two months, the door of his school office had stayed open from 9 a.m. until 7:30 p.m, every day but Sunday. Students would come in daily to cram in an extra hour of FLEX practice tests.


Preparation for FLEX also prompted White to buy new textbooks with his own money, saved from a monthly stipend of $135. In early September, he took five of his students to Aktobe to explore options at a local McMillan book store. Now he is trying to raise $3,500 to buy another 192 sets to upgrade the error-riddled and outdated English textbooks the school has been using.


White, a filmmaker from Colorado Springs, Colorado, says he was the first foreigner to step on the flat steppes of Kyzylzhar when he arrived two years ago. His host family has gotten used to hearing their native language spoken with a strong foreign accent, and over time, he says, they’ve caught the habit of speaking Kazakh with a rich mix of English. “It is solai,” White says, meaning, “That’s the way our things are.”


To his students, he is “Mr. Alex” or more often, "Alex agai" – Uncle Alex. He is not only their first English teacher, but also someone who helps keep alive their dreams of traveling the world.


Earlier this year, he invited Medhat Babasheva, an 18-year-old alumna of the FLEX program, to speak to his class. She recounted her two failed attempts and months of training before she was finally picked to study at a South Carolina high school with a student body of 3,000, matching the entire population of her village.


In the hallway with Alex agai.


“It’s one thing when this dream-story is told by someone from America,” Babasheva says. “It makes a different impression when that storyteller turns out to be someone of a similar background and the same walk of life.”


This year, when White’s students made their first attempt, they were up against more than 5,000 high school students nationwide, says Saule Abayeva, the secondary school program coordinator at American Councils-Kazakhstan. Only about 80 would ultimately be chosen for the program.


White says his heart dropped into his stomach on test day. The plan had been to get his students to Aktobe early and let them focus on the exam. “Instead, it turned into an impossible pain," he says.


After the bus pulled away from them, they caught a taxi, at 50 cents per person, to another bus stop along a highway. On the way, Maratova realized she had forgotten her birth certificate, which she would have to show to exam monitors. It was back to the village, for another round-trip taxi ride, at a cost of $8.


More hurdles were waiting. The exam proctor insisted on each student presenting a required 3-by-4-centimeter photo. The closest photo studio to Kyzylzhar is in Aktobe. With the school open well into the evening and the last bus leaving at 6 p.m., getting that photo had been virtually impossible.


White recalls thinking, “My students came here all this way. How can this little tiny paper keep them from going to America?” The only thing to do was to find a photo studio open in Aktobe at a little after 8 on a Saturday morning. Which they did.


Once in the room, Maratova says the strict no-cheating policy – something she had never encountered in her eight years of schooling, where students are allowed to help one another – threw her.


"I remember being full of hope," White says. "The fact that my students were eventually in that room taking the test felt like an accomplishment. I was proud of them for simply trying and not being afraid of failure."


Six hours later, through the late-afternoon traffic White rode home in a taxi from the school where the test results had been just announced. Of the 725 students tested in Aktobe that day, 221 made it to the second round, none from Kyzylzhar.


His phone rang, but he hesitated to take the call. "Mr. Alex, did I pass?" one of the students asked. After a pause, White responded with a sigh, “Next year. I promise.”


Story and photos by Dariya Tsyrenzhapova, a freelance writer in Almaty.


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