The Kazakh capital has become home for thousands of foreign students – and even the cold climate is not an obstacle. Most importantly, the young people enjoy Astana’s safe and busy life while gaining valuable intercultural experience.
Approximately 14,000 foreign students study in 100 universities nationwide, a figure expected to rise to 50,000 by 2020, reported the Centre for International Programmes that works under the country’s Ministry of Education and Science and administers the Bolashak presidential scholarship programme. The current breakdown includes 3,663 Uzbek citizens, 3,290 from India, 1,320 from Turkmenistan, 1,290 from China and 1,026 from Kyrgyzstan. The Kazakh universities operate 12 representative offices abroad.
(Picture top left: Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev and graduate student Khamza Sharifzoda)
International students numbered 1.68 million in 1999 globally, according to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) Institute for Statistics, a figure which has increased by almost 70 percent in the past 10 years.
The QS Quacquarelli Symonds, a leading global higher education company, reported that the international student recruitment numbers have grown exponentially since the turn of the century, quadrupling to reach 5 million between 1990 and 2014. By 2025, this number is expected to hit 8 million.
The centre plans to create a Central Asian educational hub in Kazakhstan.
“The task is set to attract more foreign students to the country. We host annual Days of Kazakhstan educational exhibitions in the Central Asian states. This year, the series of exhibitions with the participation of 25 local universities took place in Navoi, Uzbekistan, April 9. The event is also a platform for discussing bilateral and inter-university cooperation,” said a centre representative.
Nazarbayev University, which currently has 25 foreign students, offers Bachelor’s, Master’s and Doctoral programmes developed in partnership with leading international universities. The majority of students are from China, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Tajikistan and the U.S.
Khamza Sharifzoda, 21, from Tajikistan, was among those who received a diploma with honors from the Kazakh head of state in June.
“I want to thank President Nazarbayev for his initiative to establish [Nazarbayev University], which provided me with competitive knowledge in my field; the staff of the university, whose eagerness to help me made me feel as if I was back at home, and my family for their persistent support,” he told EdgeKz.
Sharifzoda outlined why he chose to move to the Kazakh capital in August 2014.
“There were basically a few reasons for me to choose Nazarbayev University. The first reason I chose this university was because this was an English-speaking university where the instruction was in English. Prior to 2014, I hadn’t heard about this university, to be honest. However, one of my Kazakh friends recommended it to me. Then, I started exploring the university more and studied the faculty. I was impressed that they all came mostly from Europe and North America. This was a place where I could receive a good Western-style education in English. I hadn’t been to Kazakhstan before and I wanted to learn more about our neighbors,” he said.
Sharifzoda studied the politics and governance of the Russian Federation, Eastern Europe, and Eurasia.
“I think this was one of the strongest advantages of studying this area in Kazakhstan, because it enabled me to study both with the experts in my field and at the same time in the geographical area of my studies. I could travel basically to other neighboring countries to get to know the countries better, as well as to acquire a more theoretical grounding in my field,” he noted.
Sandra Real, from Mexico, is pursuing her Master’s degree in Eurasian Studies at the same university. She is fond of traveling and passionate about learning languages.
She recalled how people started to talk to her in the Kazakh language when she arrived in the country. They thought she was a native.
“I’m the person who has followed her dream since childhood. When I was a little girl, I received a gift from my parents. It was a book about the former Soviet Union republics with pictures of landscapes and information about their cultures. I was deeply impressed with this book. Since then, I have turned my attention towards Kazakhstan and its culture,” she said in an interview for this story.
Real studied the Russian language at school and decided to learn about the history of Central Asia.
“Actually, Mexican students go to the U.S., Canada and Spain. I was looking for possibilities in order to continue my education on the Eurasian continent. It was a strange choice for a Mexican girl to come to Kazakhstan. Now, I can recommend Kazakhstan as an interesting place for study. Initially the language barrier was a challenge for me, especially to learn Kazakh and Russian scripts at the same time,” she said.
“I am studying the political affairs, culture, literature and history of Central Asian countries. This programme is also available in the Czech Republic and U.S. universities, but it does not have the same approach. Being in contact every day with the people and language and being able to explore all the aspects were essential to me,” she added.
Real received her Bachelor’s degree at the National Autonomous University of Mexico, where she studied food technology.
“Now, my studies are not focused on conducting research in terms of producing food and beverage. I am more interested in the cultural connections between food. I also think that [being an] expert in food technology is good to understand how traditional products such as kumys (fermented mare’s milk), shubat (fermented camel milk) and kurt (dried salted cheese) are produced and their influence on culture and life. My main interest here is to conduct research related to food anthropology. It is a new topic. However, I think it has potential to boost attention for tourists coming to Kazakhstan and experiencing a culinary culture,” she added.
Although all the tourist attractions are located on the left bank of the city, Real finds pleasure in discovering the right bank, the older part of the city.
“I’m delighted to explore the bazaar culture and I prefer to buy groceries there to get to know various foods. I wish I had time to visit the Astana Opera. Unfortunately, we do not have enough time to go to the city and explore the sights. I was lucky to visit the expo when there was the Mexican national day. It was an amazing event. Our community is small in Kazakhstan. Nowadays, there are between four and six Mexican residents. We stay in touch,” she said.
Real noted she would be happy to stay in Kazakhstan. The common traditions and hospitality of the locals are close to her heart.
“I visited Shymkent. A friend of mine celebrated kyz uzatu (a wedding reception at the bride’s home). We do not have trains in Mexico. It was my first time traveling by train. I felt like a small kid on the train. My childhood dream came true, as I had the opportunity to look through the window and see the snowy mountains from the book I saw. When we arrived in Taraz, I was also glad to find that the nature was similar to my hometown, even similar flowers. I was happy to taste the local cuisine and attend the traditional Kazakh wedding,” she said.
Real shared some tips for students living abroad on their own.
“The most important part is not to be afraid to make mistakes in speaking while you adapt to living in other countries. We should explore the city as much as possible; to see markets and people is a good thing. In order to understand the culture, the place where you are is the place to go and taste the local food and beverages and then you will be able to take these spiritual connections with you,” she noted.
At present, 134 students from nine countries – Afghanistan, Azerbaijan, China, Germany, Mongolia, Russia, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and Ukraine – study at Saken Seifullin Kazakh Agrotechnical University in the capital.
Afghan student Hafizullah Qaderi came to the city in 2012. He became famous when he posted a video on his Facebook page urging all world leaders to galvanise efforts to stabilise the situation in his home country in advance of Nazarbayev’s Jan. 16 visit to the U.S. and his meeting with President Donald Trump.
Qaderi believes Afghanistan could learn how to build peace from Kazakhstan’s example. He stressed the Kazakh President’s consistent efforts to serve as a mediator in settling conflicts, including the Syrian peace talks.
“At first, we studied the Kazakh and Russian languages in Almaty and then I entered Seifullin Kazakh Agrotechnical University in Astana. I am glad to study here. I am proud to study in Kazakhstan. Kazakh people are very friendly and open. They respect other nations. I really like Kazakhstan and I have learned a lot here, where people of different ethnic backgrounds live in peace together and respect each other,” he said. Six Afghan students are studying at Seifullin Kazakh Agrotechnical University as part of the countries’ intergovernmental education agreement launched in 2010. As of September 2017, 564 students have graduated from Kazakh universities and technical and vocational education institutes under the Kazakh government-sponsored programme that is to educate 1,000 Afghans.
“I have a great desire to continue my studies at the university as a graduate student. Teachers are very helpful here. I feel comfortable. This university is like a home for me. I have many Kazakh friends. Of course, the first winter was a challenge to me. We were wondering how people could live in a cold climate. Now, we are used to living here. When we have free time, we visit theatres and local attractions. I was glad to find out that our wedding ceremonies are very similar. A friend of mine married a Kazakh girl. I was happy to attend the traditional wedding,” said Qaderi.