The Wisconsin-Kazakhstan Bridge

In summer 2016, the University of Wisconsin-Madison once again hosted undergraduate students from Nazarbayev University (NU) in Astana, Kazakhstan as part of the ongoing partnership between the two universities. This year a program called WisKaz-BRIDGE helped both Madison and NU students overcome cultural gaps and build new relationships.

WisKaz-BRIDGE is a collaboration between two programs. WisKaz (from “Wisconsin-Kazakhstan”) is a language program organized by the UW Russian Flagship Program. It partners UW students studying Russian with students from NU. For UW students, WisKaz offers “a chance to casually practice Russian in a stress-free environment with peers, which provides a good alternative environment to the classroom,” explains Russian Flagship Program Coordinator Laura Weigel. In summer 2015, WisKaz matched 26 UW students with 35 NU students who spent eight weeks at UW-Madison during the summer as part of the Visiting International Student Program (VISP). Students met with their partners for at least 30 minutes each week for informal conversations, speaking Russian half the time and English the other half.

WisKaz-BRIDGE participants pose in front of Kazakhstan’s flag
WisKaz-BRIDGE participants pose in front of Kazakhstan’s flag. Photo credit: Daniyar Zhurgenov

In preparation for the 2016 summer program, Laura Weigel distributed a survey to the NU students coming to Madison. The response rate was higher than anticipated, with 33 of the 35 NU students signing up to participate in WisKaz. Suddenly, there were too few UW-Madison Russian language students to match the number of NU participants. So Weigel contacted Sabrine Ali, who coordinates the Building Relationships in Diverse Global Environments (BRIDGE) program with UW-Madison’s International Student Services.

“BRIDGE is an international friendship program,” Ali summarizes. BRIDGE pairs a UW student with an international student and coordinates events throughout the semester. Prior to the WisKaz-BRIDGE partnership, BRIDGE had not operated in the summer. During an average semester, though, BRIDGE has over 200 participants, organized into groups of 20. “It’s a way for international students to connect with students on campus and have a guide to help them transition to life on campus. They build intercultural connections and meet not only Americans but also students from other countries,” Ali explains. “It’s a small community within a very large campus.”

Weigel and Ali agreed there was an opportunity to expand WisKaz by partnering with BRIDGE. Weigel first paired 22 UW students studying Russian, Kazakh, or Tajik with NU students. Then BRIDGE provided 15 students to match the remaining NU participants. In summer 2015, WisKaz activities had been mostly limited to partners meeting for language practice. Participants indicated that they would like more structured events. WisKaz-BRIDGE offered precisely that in 2016, planning a series of events similar to those BRIDGE usually organizes.

WisKaz-BRIDGE participants at the University Club
WisKaz-BRIDGE participants at the University Club. Photo credit: Daniyar Zhurgenov

WisKaz-BRIDGE activities included a welcome event where students met each other for the first time, an ice cream social, a movie night at Camp Randall, a Concert on the Square, a bonfire (with s’mores) at Picnic Point, and a farewell event at the University Club. “S’mores were a hit! Not everyone liked them, but they were all eager to try them,” emphasizes Morgan Klaeser, a UW-Madison senior majoring in Economics who participated in WisKaz 2015 and served as event planner and peer contact for WisKaz-BRIDGE this year.

Yiqi Yu, a UW junior majoring in history and Russian, also participated in WisKaz last summer and WisKaz-BRIDGE this summer. He notes the benefits of the expanded program. “The advantage this year was a lot of new events, like the bonfire party and the ice cream social. I think they really provided some good opportunities for us to mingle apart from scheduling individual meetings,” Yu says.

Klaeser reiterates the importance of social interactions for WisKaz-BRIDGE participants. “The goal of WisKaz-BRIDGE is to help American students studying Russian or Kazakh practice their foreign language, while serving as liaisons for the Nazarbayev University students,” she says. “I think, though, the end product is less about the language practice and more about creating relationships.”

WisKaz-BRIDGE ice cream social
WisKaz-BRIDGE ice cream social. Photo credit: Kate Feldt

Social settings also provide an important learning environment. “I learned a lot of new expressions through [WisKaz-BRIDGE]. My Russian skills have definitely improved after doing the program this summer. In fact, I have a testimony to support it,” Yu conveys. “One of the NU students and I had a conversation in Russian at the SERF while playing soccer and he told me, ‘Yiqi, you’re doing much better in Russian than when I first met you!’”

UW students also benefit in other ways from meeting students from Kazakhstan. Weigel notes that Russian Flagship students used to spend their “capstone” year abroad studying in St. Petersburg, Russia, but in 2014 the capstone program moved to Almaty, Kazakhstan. “Especially if they haven’t been to Almaty yet, Russian Flagship students learn about Kazakhstan and get insight into study abroad through their NU partners,” says Weigel.

Klaeser agrees that exposure to the Russian-speaking world beyond Russia is vital. “From my time in the Russian Flagship Program, it seemed that students were very into Russia and solely Russian culture. I think exposure to Central Asian culture is valuable, if not crucial, in that it gives UW students a more accurate taste of where Russian language will be valuable in their careers,” she says.

Yu concurs, explaining, “After doing the WisKaz program, I now have some growing interest in Kazakhstan. Because I’m very interested in Soviet-era history, and of course since the Soviet Union was more than just Russia, I’m curious to know about the history of Soviet-era Kazakhstan.”

NU students explore American politics
NU students explore American politics. Photo credit: Daniyar Zhurgenov

Although Kazakh students are generally more proficient in English than U.S. students are in Russian, WisKaz-BRIDGE added important cultural components to their study abroad. Being partnered with UW students prevents NU students from living as an “isolated herd” while in Madison, says Weigel. “It’s helpful to have an assigned ‘buddy’ whom they can turn to for orientation or recommendations. You need a peer adviser who has similar interests and time constraints as you do to talk about food, parks, ATMs, malls, and bars,” Klaeser adds. NU student Daniyar Zhurgenov (who provided some of the photos for this story) echoes that sentiment: “It was a great pleasure for me to be part of WisKaz-BRIDGE and to meet my new friends from America. Spending my first time abroad at UW-Madison opened my eyes.”

Ali says WisKaz-BRIDGE was a perfect example of the atmosphere UW-Madison hopes to provide to study abroad visitors. “When I first meet a group of students, they are usually anxious and excited, and they don’t know what to expect being here. My goal is always to make sure that they feel welcome being in the U.S. and feel that they have friends and connections–to feel that while they are here, they are part of some sort of community, and they know that when they walk down the street, they’re likely to run into a friend that they can rely on,” Ali explains. “And by the end of the summer, when I saw everyone in this group beaming with smiles, I knew that we reached that goal.”