The more I talk with students, the more I realize how few career opportunities there are for them in Central Asia after graduation and that, unless they can find some opportunity in West, they will probably have to settle for some low-wage clerical or administrative position. But going West is not always the best option in a society that places a heavy emphasis on family solidarity. Some students, like Gulru, a senior, have told me they have been separated from their families for five or six years, which often includes, as it did for her, a year abroad in the United States through a high school exchange program. In that time, she has grown apart from a family she loves. For example, her younger brother was 11 when she left Turkmenistan and she has no direct memory of him growing taller than her and having his voice change. When she does go home to visit, she said conversations at the dinner table are often about family experiences of which she was not part.
In Central Asia nations, like Turkmenistan, public education starts at age seven or eight and runs for nine years, so an exchange student’s year in a high school abroad usually takes place after they have completed their own “high school.” The exchange programs are funded, in large part, through the U.S. embassies as part of their efforts to Westernize Central Asia. Many, if not most, of the students from outside Kyrgyzstan are here on scholarships from the Soros’ Open Society Foundation, which is also a core funder of AUCA. Their nations are happy to take advantage of Western support, but they don’t necessarily embrace the ideas or skills these students acquire. In many ways, the students educated in the Western liberal arts tradition are likely to be seen and treated as “different” in both the West and their nation of origin. They are conservative Muslims from “backward” nations in the West, but in the Central Asia they are “liberals” who have lost their cultural moorings and traditional values. This seems especially difficult for women, whose ideas of gener equality make it hard for them to return and adjust to patriarchal societies built on conservative religious traditions.