Study Abroad Takes Students/Faculty/Staff to Kyrgyzstan
Learning opportunity win-win: Students enjoy trip, enhance future employment opportunities
When Mary Stegmaier, associate professor in the Truman School of Government and Public Affairs and vice provost for International Programs, put together her syllabus for a study abroad program to Kyrgyzstan, she had a mission: To help students learn about international economic development and governance.
“Kyrgyzstan has served as the crossroads for international trade, ethnic groups, nomadic tribes, and diverse religious traditions in Central Asia,” she says in her syllabus. “This history shapes society, culture and politics still today…. There’s no better way to learn about the politics and culture of a region than experiencing it!”
And that she did. She and eight students (both graduate and undergrad from a variety of Mizzou schools and programs), plus faculty and staff traveled to the land-locked nation, a beautiful place known for its sparse population, rugged high mountains with windy roads, massive glacier, national parks and more. It is bordered by Kazakhstan (north), Uzbekistan (west), Tajikistan (south) and China (east).
On The Road
During the seventeen-day trip from July 15 to Aug. 1, students earned three credit hours in political science or public affairs, all while learning from practitioners, scholars, and ordinary people in Kyrgyzstan about political, economic, and societal challenges facing the country. They also learned the ways government and the international community are working to address them, a press release from Mizzou’s myStudyAbroad program states
“My biggest takeaway was the sheer diversity in culture, customs, and tradition in the country,” says Dayan Reynolds, a May 2021 graduate with a BA in political science. “It feels like we always learn about smaller countries as being very mono-ethnic and uniform, but in Kyrgyzstan, there are so many different people from different walks of life. We ate Uzbek food in the south, Russian food in the northeast and Kyrgyz food in a traditional yurt outside the capital.
“We met people who spoke all different languages, and toured museums showcasing all kinds of identities through the area’s history. It was an incredible moment to experience so much diversity in what seemed like such a small country.”
Yasir Khan, a second-year masters of public affairs student agrees: “To truly learn about a country, you cannot rely solely on books. Once you make a personal connection with the people, the issues facing the nation become real and personal to you.
“My greatest learning experience occurred through my friendship with one of our guides and his personal account and experience of major events in the country. It transformed my understanding from the intellectual to the very real and personal.”
Stegmaier says this study abroad program should open doors to students in the future. “As Americans, we don’t have as many opportunities to explore and learn about parts of Asia …. So, as a student, you can distinguish yourself on the job market, especially if you’re interested in international careers.
“By studying and learning about a place that many other people have not been – that stands out in an interview, it stands out on a graduate school application, and it stands out for people who want to work with the U.S. government, whether it is for the State Department, the defense industry, or in economic development.”
Students familiarized themselves with the country by reading course materials and writing reflections on those readings before the trip.
Learning From Each Other
“It’s a great opportunity for Truman School of Government and Public Affairs masters students to learn about international economic development and governance and the work of nongovernmental organizations with local partners, as well as U.S. and other international agencies, such as USAID,” says Stegmaier.
USAID, according to its website, “is the world’s premier international development agency and a catalytic actor driving development results.” Those on the study abroad program did meet with a USAID representative while there.
Stegmaier says the trip provides great networking opportunities because of the student/faculty/staff interactions with international agencies, such as a speaker from the U.S. Embassy who talked with them about foreign service careers and the type of work the U.S. Embassy in Kyrgyzstan is doing in the country.
They met with a former government minister from the first presidency of the country in the 1990s, the governor of the Jalal-Abad providence, and election officials.
In addition, they visited an American Corners center, a partnership between the U.S. Embassy Bishkek and local institutions. The American Corners Program, launched in 2003 in Kyrgyzstan, provides to the Kyrgyz people information about the U.S. with a goal of promoting mutual understanding, its website states. There are seven American Corners in Kyrgyzstan, each with public access computers, internet connection, audio/video equipment and more, the website states.
“One of the American Corners locations is at Jalal-Abad State University,” Stegmaier adds. Students were able to visit the Jalal-Abad American Corner, and meet with the director. The American Corner has library books that locals can check out and read and offer English-as-a-second-language materials.
They also met with a group of 50 middle school and high school students who were “extremely” excited to meet a group of Americans, Stegmaier adds.
“We met with representatives of the German Economic Development Fund, and learned about their projects that work with the local communities on developing tourism, economic opportunities for entrepreneurs, and sustainable agricultural practices,” Stegmaier adds. “They also promote women’s rights in the country, and work to address other challenges that developing countries, including Kyrgyzstan, face.”
She says in meeting with so many different speakers, presenters, representatives, etc., the students got a chance to learn about political and economic conditions and the challenges faced by the young country, such as government infrastructure, creation of a constitution, how the political system is to work, how to ensure different groups are represented, how markets are regulated, how to promote a free enterprise, how to implement anti-corruption policies, border conflicts, relations between the U.S. and Kyrgyzstan, women’s rights and so much more.
“One of the things that I think makes this course in Kyrgyzstan particularly interesting is that it is a newly sovereign country,” Stegmaier says. “This year, they are celebrating their 30th year of independence from the Soviet Union.
“I think the students were surprised to learn how frequently changes to the Constitution have been made over the past 30 years as they strive to improve the quality of government and the economic situation of the country. I think those two are inextricably linked.”
Stegmaier says they stood out as Americans as the region is not on most American’s bucket list, but not in a bad way. “For the most part, the Kyrgyzstani people, who primarily speak Russian and Kyrgyz, look Asian. So, the way we were dressed, the way we look, the way we speak …. People were interested in us. They don’t have an opportunity to meet many Americans, let alone a group of 15 of them.”
An Experienced Guide
Stegmaier, who has traveled to Kyrgyzstan four times and observed three elections there, says this year was the first time offering the trip. She says there are fewer covid-related travel restrictions to enter Kyrgyzstan than say Europe, and her previous experience there opened doors for this trip.
“They had a presidential election this past January,” she says. “And I was in the country for five weeks for a long-term election-observation mission. That gave me the opportunity to make lots of political contacts, as well as contacts with the media, local universities and nongovernmental organizations that promote economic development and democracy.”
Hence, the addition of “Politics and Society in Central Asia,” a new study abroad course offered likely either annually or every other year.
While in Kyrgyzstan, the group explored the Sulayman Mountain (World Heritage Site), Ala-Too Square in Bishkek, Ala Archa National Park, Uzgen Minaret and Mausoleum and Skazka Gorge, as well. They also went horseback riding and did other cultural activities.
Second year public affairs master’s student Hannah Talley says the beauty of the country was stunning.
“Whether we were in the mountains or in the busy city, everything was amazing,” she says. “This part of the world is definitely under-rated, and I would encourage anyone to visit if they ever had the opportunity.
“The people of Kyrgyzstan are very smart and hard-working,” Talley adds. “And it was so neat to see and hear from the people who live and work in the country.”
An Vu, a senior in Business Administration, agrees. “Although New Zealand is my favorite country because of its natural beauty, I enjoyed my experience in Kyrgyzstan the most, due to its rich culture,” she says. “Despite language barriers, my experience in the Kyrgyz Republic was very positive. One of the defining features is the hospitality of the Kyrgyz people, always welcoming and willing to answer questions.
“The sense of community evident in this country reminds me of how beautiful it is to be infinitely connected to one another through a shared humanity. I enjoyed this program because of the authentic cultural immersion, which allowed a richer experience as compared to travelling as a tourist.”
“I was very pleased with how the program went,” Stegmaier says. “I was especially impressed at how well prepared the students were for the trip so we could run a fascinating program in Kyrgyzstan that was rich in information and experiences for our students.”
For information about next summer’s program, click here.
Connections Abroad Grows MU Student Opportunities
Two agreements extend research prospects to Mizzou students and university students in Kyrgyzstan
Thanks to Mary Stegmaier, vice provost for International Programs, the University of Missouri has signed an agreement with two universities in Jalal-Abad Kyrgyzstan to partner on exchange and research opportunities so that their students can study at Mizzou and our students can have experiences at their universities.
The first, with Jalal-Abad State University, was signed this past spring. Mizzou has already begun promoting their Asian Affairs Center programs through an online event with the university in Kyrgyzstan.
The second, with Toktomamatov International University, included a formal signing when Stegmaier and 14 others went to Kyrgyzstan on a study abroad program on “Politics and Society in Central Asia.” The faculty, staff, and university students also visited Jalal-Abad State University while there.
Both agreements establish general cooperation, says Stegmaier. “The agreements are at the university-level to promote opportunities across all programs.”
According to a press release, released by the U.S. Embassy in the Kyrgyz Republic, the “purpose of the agreement is to serve as an indication of mutual interest for cooperation between the two institutions.”
Specifically, “the agreement includes encouragement for faculty to collaborate on joint teaching programs, as well as student and faculty exchange programs.”
Stegmaier says that while Kyrgyzstan has had its share of political and economic challenges since independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, the spirit of democracy and entrepreneurism is evident in daily life – and at the universities in the country.
“There’s so much we can learn from each other,” she adds.
“We would like to devote energy to solidifying these two partnerships before we sign other agreements with Kyrgyz universities,” Stegmaier says. “And we have around 200 agreements with universities in over 30 countries around the world, including India, Bolivia, Belgium, South Africa and South Korea.
“For students who plan to work in foreign affairs or international development, studying in Kyrgyzstan will distinguish them from others competing for international careers,” she adds.