Teacher takes skills to Kazakhstan

Published 1:09 am Thursday, October 27, 2011

Alison Cook (center) poses with a woman she identified as Galina (left), her host mother in the Peace Corps, and her host cousin, Dasha, in Kazakhstan. (Contributed Photo)

Alison Cook vaguely knew about Kazakhstan when she made the decision to go there in 2002 for two years as a member of the Peace Corps. Now, she’s back there, teaching at Zhetysu University in Taldykorgan for 10 months.
Cook is a Beaufort County native and the daughter of Wayne and Jennifer Cook, who live in Bath.
Kazakhstan is the largest landlocked country in the world and the ninth-largest country overall. It was a part of the former Soviet Union. It shares a border with Russia to the north. Kazakh is the country’s first official language, with Russian being the second.
When Cook first decided to go there, she was going through interviews with the Peace Corps, but she had not previously considered Kazakhstan. When she was given a choice between Africa and Kazakhstan, she was slightly concerned about going to an African country because of malaria and the heat. She became more interested in Kazakhstan. After meeting with the recruiter for Kazakhstan, she made the decision to go there. The two hit it off, and the recruiter thought she would be a great fit.
Growing up, Cook said she saw videos of the Soviet Union. She had been struck by how — contradictory to what she had envisioned of the Cold War opponent — the buildings and people looked so similar to buildings and people in America. She knew practically nothing about the country before talking to the recruiter. She wasn’t even sure where it was, but when he told her it had been a part of the former Soviet Union, that was a huge enticement.
“I jumped on it,” Cook said.
Having no language experience with either Kazakh or Russian, she had to get that experience. Now, she’s fluent in Russian and knows some basic Kazakh. As per Peace Corps policy, she stayed with a host family to immerse herself in the language and culture. This led to a fast friendship. Typically, volunteers only stay with their hosts for a few months and then move out for the rest of their terms.
“My host mother and I are very close,” she said. “She asked me to stay the full two years, so I did.”
In August, Cook went back to Kazakhstan to teach as part of the Peace Corps Response, and she loves teaching every bit as much as she did during her first tenure there. She teaches students majoring in translation and interpretation between Kazakh, Russian and English.
“The students are very eager to learn,” she said. “They are very appreciative of having the opportunity to talk with a native (English) speaker.”
Recently, Cook said, two of her students took her to a cafe because they wanted to speak with her more in English.
Cook tries to teach her students more than just the language.
“They need to not just learn the language, but think critically,” she said.
To help with this, she divides her students into pairs or groups so they can help one another. She gives each one a topic or issue (starvation, global warming and the like). She says, “Here’s your problem. Now, give me a solution in writing.”
One huge difference between American and Kazakhstani culture is the pace of life.
“I’m living in Kazakh time. There’s no rush,” she said. “Things will get done when they get done.”
This can be refreshing, but it can also be frustrating at times, she noted. As a guest, “I have to try to do things their way,” she said.
Cook said the best part of living in Kazakhstan is interacting with its people.
“Everyone is so hospitable,” she said. “The teachers I’ve worked with are very supportive. … It just makes the experience worthwhile.”
Cook is not sure what she will do when her 10-month commitment ends. She’s exploring several options.
As for her experience overseas, which she described as amazing, Cook recommends others consider similar commitments.