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December 19, 2021

“Due to my Fulbright, untold Kazakh people have also befriended and educated me in an area of the world that continues to hold my fascination.”: Valerie Sartor shares her experience of being a U.S. Fulbright Scholar in Karaganda, Kazakhstan. 


Valerie Sartor, Language Instructor, Defense Language Institute, Lackland Air Force Base,
San Antonio, Texas, USA
Program: Fulbright U.S. Scholar, 2019-2020 


Q1: How did your exchange program influence your life? 

The 2019-2020 Fulbright Program has influenced my life personally and professionally. I chose to apply to Kazakhstan because I had met, in 2009, as an English Language Fellow in Ashgabat, a renowned Central Asian scholar and linguist, Dr Bill Fierman. Over the years we had maintained contact, despite the fact that our academic fields differed. He always encouraged me to continue studying the post-Soviet world and to continue studying Russian, even though my specialty focused upon teacher training, specifically, training English language teachers. Before I applied for the Kazakhstan fellowship, under Bill’s guidance I had read many articles and books about Kazakhstan and Central Asia, and I had had many pleasant and informative conversations with Bill over SKYPE. Thus, one significant benefit was that the Fulbright solidified and deepened my friendship with Bill Fierman. Due to my Fulbright, untold Kazakh people have also befriended and educated me in an area of the world that continues to hold my fascination.  

While I served in Kazakhstan (2019-2020), I had the opportunity to build personal and professional relationships. I established countless positive connections with students and faculty at my host university, Karaganda State University. Two young faculty women greatly assisted me, helping me with various things, from translations to the best places for grocery shopping. During my time abroad I also got to know many dedicated academics and teachers around Kazakhstan, as I traveled around the country offering seminars to support language teachers.  

In addition to making many good friends, my professional academic career blossomed, almost by accident, in Kazakhstan. During my tenure there as a teacher and teacher trainer, I conducted independent research on linguistic shift. This resulted in a Summer 2021 lead article in the publication Central Asian Affairs, as well as one peer reviewed 2020 article on using remote resources for teaching English in the English Language Forum. Clearly, Kazakhstan stimulated my intellectual curiosity and added to my experience as a professor.  

Q2: How have you applied your U.S. experience to your work in Kazakhstan? 

My US experience as a teacher trainer and a sociolinguist served me well when I worked in Kazakhstan. The country is not only quite hospitable but also supports culturally sensitive educators who want to understand and support their trilingual language policy. Kazakhstani teachers taught me a great deal about how to effectively present methodology, while enthusiastically welcoming my ideas. As a scholar, I am interested in the sociocultural aspects of language choice. I found Kazakhstan to be a nation that is struggling with similar issues that Native Americans in the US have encountered. My dissertation background and passionate interest in language preservation and revitalization caused me to investigate how a modern post-Soviet nation like Kazakhstan could preserve Kazakh as a viable language while continuing to use Russian as a lingua franca and moreover, adding English as a global language to the mix.   

Q3: Are there Any positive statistics or anecdotes you can share? 

Many positive and pleasant things happened to me while I was in Kazakhstan. As I trudged to my bus stop, the minivan drivers always recognized me on dark winter days and would heft me aboard, and plant me on a seat. My neighbor Ayuna would bring me jars of homemade soup and walk to the grocery store with me. Students sang funny songs to me when I taught them limericks. A group of female teachers in Uralsk took me to a local sauna, where we furthered our discussion on teaching methods while sweating together for hours. My host Serik in Usl’ Kamenogorsk took me and a fellow Fulbrighter on long tours around the outskirts of the city and wined and dined us. And the U.S. Embassy Fulbright supervisor was always kind to me. On my last evening she invited me into her home for a meal. Everywhere the Kazakh hospitality was generous, sincere, and heartwarming.    

Q4: What most surprised you during or following your exchange? 

What has surprised me the most after my exchange are two things. First, I yearn to go to Kazakhstan again, and feel a deeper connection to this country than I have felt for other countries that I previously lived and worked in. My relationships with Kazakhstanis continue, and in my current position at the Defense Language Institute I apply for every teaching mission that opens in Kazakhstan. The second thing that surprises me is how little most Americans, even scholars, know about this country. From a scholarly perspective Kazakhstan is a very good place for a budding researcher to go – because the Kazakhs will not only welcome and support academic scholarship, but also because the field is new and full of possibilities to write and publish on a wide area of topics.  

Q5: What recommendations would you make to prospective program participants? 

For ambitious program participants, this opportunity to create original research will surely be alluring. For those who are trying to serve as a Fulbright from a less avid perspective, I would still urge them to consider Kazakhstan as a place to grow emotionally and intellectually. Kazakh culture is a unique mix. The Kazakhs are neither western nor eastern people; they are no longer nomadic or Soviet.  Kazakhstanis are ethnically diverse and gentle. They are generous to a fault, and curious as cats about Americans. Do not go without reading The Hungry Steppe; The Touch of Civilization; and other histories, both popular and academic, on the Kazakh nation and Central Asia in general. Read as much as possible before entering the country. If you speak decent Russian you will be at an advantage, and if you speak some Kazakh you will be loved. I cannot thank the Kazakh people enough for all the kindnesses they so gracefully bestowed upon me.