Shalkar Nursetov hopes to teach at a university and then open his own political consulting/social media firm, not exactly a radical choice for a 23-year-old George Washington University student pursuing a master’s degree in media and public affairs.
But Mr. Nursetov hopes to land a job not on K Street or in an American political science department but back in his native Kazakhstan, as one of the latest graduates of an ambitious study-abroad program that the former Soviet republic has set up to lift the country to the top ranks of the world’s developed nations by 2050.
The Bolashak — “Future” in Kazakh — Program has paid full expenses for more than 11,000 students like Mr. Nursetov since its inception in 1993. Even with oil, the country’s economic lifeline, facing a prolonged price slump on world markets, the government of longtime Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev insists the country will not cut back on the expensive but promising foreign study program for the country’s best and brightest.
“I plan to teach for five years at Kazakh National University and then probably I will start my own company,” Mr. Nursetov said in an interview late last month, a far cry from the village in which he was raised by a strict schoolteacher mother and a father who worked as a veterinarian.
He hopes to educate political activists back home on how to create more effective websites and to use social media the way U.S. campaigns and elections do. His work no doubt will be challenging in a nation that has not had deep traditions of U.S.-style political campaigns. Some of the eight political parties don’t even have websites, he said.
Mr. Nursetov sees the Bolashak program as a door opener for bringing about expertise in campaigns and elections as the country makes a transition into a market-based democracy. Although the country has never had a vote considered free and fair by international standards, the Central Election Commission this week said it had registered candidates of the opposition Nationwide Social-Democratic Party to run in parliamentary elections March 20.
Most candidates in the Bolashak Program travel to Britain, the U.S. and Canada for master’s programs in fields of their choice. Others study at universities in 20 other countries. But a much larger number of Kazakh students who study abroad do so through grants from the foreign universities themselves or with their personal money. This year, 15,000 Kazakhs are studying at Russian universities and 10,000 are studying in China, according to Kazakh officials.
In exchange for underwriting tuition, travel and room and board, the Bolashak Program does have one mandate: Participants are required to return home after earning their degrees and work for at least five years in Kazakhstan.
Many Bolashak alumni are rising political leaders in cities or the provinces. Quite a few launch tech startups in hopes of becoming Central Asia’s Google or Facebook.
Gani Nygymetov, the 32-year-old director of the program in the Kazakh capital of Astana, proudly notes that the British Council, which supervises exchanges of students to and from the United Kingdom, dubbed the Kazakh initiative the “best scholarship program in the world” at its Going Global international conference in Miami in 2014. Bolashak scored high on three key measures, he said.
“First, our program is very compact. Second, it is very targeted to special needs of our economy such as engineering and technical research. And third, our government monitors the performance of alumni after they return home,” Mr. Nygymetov said in an interview.
Having a corps of young, well-educated technocrats and Web-savvy professionals also supports Mr. Nazarbayev’s five-year development plan, which includes a call to transform Astana into a trilingual banking and technological manufacturing center for the region.
“The president’s next five-year mission is to train professionals to help implement the so-called Plan of the Nation many of which relate to creating a better, more modern state apparatus and a diversified economy,” he said.
More than 9,000 Bolashak alumni have returned to Kazakhstan and are working in the oil and gas industry or the tech sectors as managers, engineers or researchers. Another 1,400 are continuing their studies in the foreign countries, Mr. Nygymetov told The Washington Times.
Nearly 2,000 Bolashak scholars are studying in the United States. Nineteen of them, including Mr. Nursetov, are completing their degrees at George Washington.
Also among the GWU students is Ruslan Zhexebaiuly, 27, who is completing his law degree before returning home. The son of a hospital administrator and a nurse grew up like Mr. Nursetov in a village far from the country’s urban centers. Mr. Zhexebaiuly plans to put his training to work rooting out money laundering and corruption in Kazakhstan.
“I learned here that corruption is the No. 1 enemy of any country,” he said. “It is why some countries succeed and others don’t.”
Kazakhstan ranked 123rd out of 168 countries in the widely cited 2015 Transparency International Corruption Perceptions Index, although it ranks just below Russia and rates better than its Central Asian neighbors also born in the collapse of the Soviet Union.
A successful democracy, Mr. Zhexebaiuly said, “needs active, responsible and informed citizens, people who are able to take responsibility for themselves and their communities and contribute to the political process.”
“These capacities do not develop unaided,” he said. “They have to be learned.”
A fraternal network for Kazakhs studying abroad goes by the name of KazAlliance, and Mr. Zhexebaiuly is the leader in the District of Columbia. KazAlliance members perform volunteer work and help one another with career tips and job opportunities.
Sergey Kompaniyets, 29, is majoring in information technology management in GWU’s Business School. He said he hopes to contribute to Kazakhstan’s e-government project, an effort to combine all government services, including registration, licensing and tax payments, into a single electronic platform. He said not all the learning in the Bolashak Program goes one way.
In his view, Kazakh students are bringing a rich culture of peaceful coexistence and tolerance from the nomad culture of northern Eurasia to the West. “Our nation is proof that 100 nationalities can live peacefully together,” he said.
The GWU Kazakh students pointed out that the hallmarks of their country’s nomad culture are tolerance and hospitality. Nomadic people constantly had to adapt to new cultures and environments as they moved their herds between the northern and southern steppes when the seasons changed.
“Our people have a history of always welcoming strangers,” Mr. Zhexebaiuly said. “It is our tradition to say, ‘Guests are sent by God.’”
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