Ellie Carey ‘26
Before studying abroad this summer, I wouldn’t have been able to place Kazakhstan on the map, let alone explain the beauty and intricateness that this Central Asian giant holds. Studying at Al-Farabi Kazakh National University was something I had never planned for myself. Still, it was the most eye-opening, groundbreaking experience I could have asked for, both as an International Studies major and as a Russian major.
A common mistake that many Russian majors make is only focusing on Russia. We often forget Russia’s detrimental impact on the post-soviet space and how the political world of countries like Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and Kyrgyzstan are all based upon Russian imperialism. My time abroad has taught me that Russian Studies is an expansive and intersectional project. Especially now in the world of the Russo-Ukrainian conflict, we must shift our studies beyond just Russian borders and concentrate our efforts on less studied regions, like Kazakhstan.
My main purpose for going to Almaty, Kazakhstan, was to understand the Russian language better. As a part of the Russian Language and Area Studies program, my days were spent studying grammar, phonetics, reading, and writing. This was incredibly overwhelming but rewarding as a student who had only studied Russian for one year. However, my classes on Kazakh culture and politics were more influential on my worldview and how I want to pursue my studies in the future.
Beyond classes, however, I further learned that Kazakhstan is beautiful in part because it is different from the United States. Every step you take is a new experience and a learning opportunity. Beyond the noticeable language differences, people carry themselves differently, eat different foods, and spend their time differently. Kazakhstan is unique, perplexing, and exciting.
One of my favorite aspects of my program was our weekly excursions. As a group, we explored different aspects of Kazakh life – from hiking in the Bol’shoi Talgarski Pass to traveling to the south of the country (Shymkent and Turkestan). We did these adventures alongside 30 Kazakh students, who gave us real insight into their everyday experiences. Through these excursions and connections, Kazakhstan became a cultured, well-rounded place that I long to return to. Here are some of my favorite things I learned:
- Kazakh is the people’s language, and the government is implementing programs to promote it. Being able to say a few words – even just hello and thank you – goes a long way, especially in non-metropolitan areas.
- Kazakh people care about fitness and being outdoors. On my walk to school, the sidewalks were lined with basketball courts, outdoor fitness centers, and walking paths. In Almaty, people value hiking especially, based on its beautiful location at the base of a mountain chain.
- Kazakhstan has a specific and interesting interpretation of Islam. Most Kazakh women do not wear the hijab because it goes against their foundational nomadic culture: If you can’t ride a horse wearing it, they don’t. The food is delicious, and, no, it’s not just horse (although I did eat horse many times). From plov to manti to beshbarmak, this rich flavor profile will have a dish anyone can enjoy.
These are only a few tidbits I learned abroad; the Kazakh culture is profound and can hardly be covered in a short post. If anything, I hope this information fosters a curiosity in you to explore Central Asia. As global citizens, we must examine all regions of the world, even the less talked about ones.
I encourage every international studies student to go beyond just the familiar when studying abroad. You never know what cultures you’re overlooking or how much more there is to learn until you dive into the unknowns. As Kazakh people often say – “There is no place like our motherland.” And I can strongly attest there is no place like the world of Kazakhstan.
Ellie Carey '26