Anyone who follows me on social media already knows this, whether they wanted to see all 10 of my related posts or not, but I’m going to be spending the next academic year in Uzbekistan teaching English through Fulbright!
I had originally applied for Kyrgyzstan and was an alternate, and I really didn’t expect to get bumped up because the ETA program in that country only has 3 spots and I doubted anyone would drop. However, after the death of their former president, Uzbekistan recently began opening back up to the international stage and is eager to collaborate with the U.S. embassy on education projects. The Fulbright English Teaching Assistantship (ETA) program wasn’t slated to begin there until next year (I’d even been considering applying to Uzbekistan but saw that a program didn’t exist), but I suppose last minute funding was found for it to start this year – next month, to be exact. They’re even thinking of bringing Peace Corps and possibly American Councils (and FLEX??) back to the country, so it’s going to be an exciting, inspiring time to be there. 🙂
This whole process has been an exercise in flexibility, patience, and humor – fortunately, some of few qualities I actually have. Power went out in the entire U.S. embassy during our webinar call with them? That’s fine, I’m not scared of dealing with my own power outages. Still don’t have any information about my placement or visa even though I’m due to arrive in about exactly a month? No problem! I didn’t even know I’d be going at all just a few weeks ago. The Uzbek version of Tajik Tummy sure to hit my intestines during those first several weeks? Laugh it off like I always do. But of course, there are other things I’m more concerned about: food and water sanitation (thank you, emetophobia, for making simple things a thousand times more worrying for me), whether I’ll be a good teacher or not, how I’ll cope with moving from 4 years of big cities and lots of friends to possibly a remote town where I know absolutely no one and barely speak the language. But I think the latter two will be part of the fun; they’ll motivate me to work hard, study lots, venture out, and talk to people!
Last week I attended my PDO, which featured all the Central Asian countries plus non-Commission European countries ranging from Armenia to Macedonia to Serbia. I met amazing people: alumni, other ETAs, student researchers, and scholars. Something that’s great about Fulbright that is distinct from NSLI-Y and CLS is that you get to meet people of all different ages and at different points in their careers, from recent graduates like me to university professors who are established experts in their fields. Most of the other people in my Central Asia cohort have already been to the region and know a lot about it, so I felt a little out of my depth, but that just means there’s more for me to learn!
Some highlights from PDO were…
…An English-teaching workshop that taught me a lot about teaching pedagogy, English grammar, and myself! I sometimes get nervous just answering a question in class, so I thought getting up in front of my peers to mock-teach would be intimidating, but it actually brought out a side to me I didn’t know I had! It was fun and felt like acting. And I feel better prepared to bring multimedia materials and effective teaching strategies to my own classroom.
…A visit to the U.S. Department of State, my first time being inside the building. We were briefed on Central Asia and our role as citizen ambassadors.
…A panel featuring Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s media relations manager, Muhammad Tahir; the State Department’s Public Diplomacy Officer for Central Asia, Jenn Miller; Dr. Dinissa Duvanova, a Fulbright Scholar to Kazakhstan; and Dr. Paul Michael Taylor, Director of the Smithsonian’s Asian Cultural History Program. I took extensive notes on what each of them had to say, particularly Tahir and Miller. Keep in mind that the notes below are their words and opinions, not my own, and while we’re at it – nothing on this blog is reflective of the State Department or Fulbright or any of the other alphabet soup of programs I talk about!
Tahir: Uzbekistan is experiencing top-down changes, so although they are opening back up to some degree of cooperation with international states and NGOs, others find it hard to make their way back into the country. Turkmenistan, his home country, is “going backwards” but is stable, with nothing in the political regime drastically changing and the Taliban still on the other side of the border. However, unemployment is at 60%, the average salary for the 40% with jobs is $300/month, there are 110,000 high school graduates vying for 6,000 university spots that can only be filled through bribery (which can go upward of $75,000 just for admission, not to mention tuition and passing your classes!), and the president loves to rap with his grandson and break Guinness World Records. In Tajikistan, the president’s daughters control politics and his son-in-laws business. There’s been a backlash in the country against Islam, with beards forcibly shaved and hijabs pulled off. This kind of repression feeds into religious extremism. The former president of Kyrgyzstan left power peacefully, but he helped his Prime Minister get elected as the new president. This new president, however, has been anti-corruption and going for his former president’s people. Tahir hopes that this does not feed back into authoritarianism for this fledgling “democracy.” As for Kazakhstan, all he said was to keep an eye on the 2020 elections and whether they’d yield a transition of power.
Miller: She had a more optimistic view of Central Asia and reminded us that most of these republics are only 26 years old, and that when the US was only 26 years old, we were doing some pretty nasty things too. I’m not sure if I agree with this comparison. The media in the region is still owned by Russia, which affects how citizens view the outside world, including the United States. The governments of Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan have reached out to the U.S. embassies for help developing as quickly as possible, and in the former’s case, making up for lost time. Uzbekistan sent the U.S. embassy an 100+ page of priorities, which we’ve wittled down to: anti-corruption/bribery, freer journalism, university partnerships, and English for STEM. We’re looking to help with English for journalists and Afghan refugee support in Tajikistan. Countering violent extremism by making sure madrassas provide quality education that lead to employment is a priority in Kyrgyzstan – and something I’m excited to learn more about, as my VSFS internship with U.S. Embassy Bishkek was somewhat related to this topic. Kazakhstan might soon cost-share ETAs with us, which means we’d get to send more ETAs over there! And the goal for now in Turkmenistan is to just keep the light on, to support the State Department exchange alumni who call it home, and to continue providing quality services at the 4 American Spaces throughout the country. She also told us to keep a lookout for exceptional, motivated teachers that we encounter, as there is State Department funding to support them. She told us about a Kazakh woman she met who taught both students English and teachers English pedagogy at her university, then went home to care for her farm and 8 kids. #PowerMovesOnly
…A networking event where I got to introduce my friend John (NSLI-Y Russian 2014, Fulbright Russia) to my roommate Delia (NSLI-Y Turkish 2010 & 2011, Fulbright Tajikistan) and chat about Central Asia and my virtual internship with someone from EducationUSA! Contrary to popular belief and I guess counterintuitively, I am staunchly against networking, so I zipped out of there after talking to those people. 😛
I’m so thankful for this opportunity to live in a country that’s beginning to open up again. I’ve already started studying Uzbek (the grammar is so exciting!!! I love grammar!!!), which I’ve happily put to use in social media captions because that’s the most fun way for me to learn a language. 😉 It’s kinda funny because just a month ago, I was like, “Screw it, if Fulbright isn’t going to send me abroad, I’ll go on my own trip!” and proceeded to book a trip around Europe and the Caucuses. Now I’m $1000+ out on a trip I can’t take, but at least my dream came true and I’m doing a Fulbright! Priorities.
This is going to come with its own particular challenges for me because of my phobia(s). But rereading Divergent (see, there’s a method to my madness of continuing to read kids’ books!) has taught me a lot about myself in relation to my phobia, and how although it’s a part of me, just like my skin and blood, it doesn’t have to alter my reality. So I just tell myself,