UW VISP Hosts 60 Students from Kazakhstan as Part of NU Partnership

“Be sure to expand your horizons while you’re here as there are so many resources around you,” writes one student from Madison to peers at home in Kazakhstan. “Also, don’t forget to study hard.”

In summer 2015 the University of Wisconsin-Madison hosted 60 students from Nazarbayev University (NU) in Kazakhstan for an eight-week academic and cultural program that blended rigorous coursework with opportunities to expand horizons. The students, 30 from NU’s School of Science and Technology (SST) and 30 from the School of Humanities and Social Sciences (SHSS), came to Madison through the Visiting International Student Program, or VISP.

NU students gathered for the WizKaz language program.
NU students gathered for the WizKaz language program. Photo credit: Laura Weigel.

These 60 visiting students are one part of a larger University of Wisconsin-Madison Partnership with Nazarbayev University. NU is a young university. Founded in 2009, it graduated its first group of seniors in June 2015. In order to bolster its academic services in its formative years, NU has forged strategic partnerships with several international universities, among them UW-Madison.

UW-Madison staff and faculty worked together and consulted with NU faculty in order to design a student-centered program with a central research focus. The 30 SST students were enrolled in Geoscience 376: Physical and Historical Geology, with Dr. William Barker, an experienced researcher and geologist who serves as Director of UW-Madison’s Offices of Research Policy and Industrial Partnerships. The NU students came with a range majors, including computer science, biology, physics, chemistry, math, and robotics.

This was Barker’s second summer teaching a specialized geology course for NU students. Although geology is not currently taught at NU, it is an interdisciplinary field with broad appeal for students in science and technology. Barker also notes that geology informs much of the students’ lives at home. The Kazakh economy is dependent on the extraction of oil, natural gas, and minerals. Additionally, Kazakhstan’s arid environment demands extensive water management. “These students, as future leaders of Kazakhstan, will need to make decisions that will be better informed by an understanding of geology,” Barker observes.

In Barker’s course, students received intensive hands-on research experience. “By the first week, they’ve had a field experience, they’ve had their geographic information system training, and they’ve had their advanced library training. We do a lot that first week,” Barker outlines. Students also participated in ongoing research being conducted at the Lakeshore Nature Preserve and UW Arboretum. The class was divided into ten groups of three students. Each group spent a minimum of three hours per week in the field, gathering data on pollination.

“We recorded which plants were blooming and counted the number of pollinators present in the area,” NU student Yana Kim explains. “They are taking this data in order to see whether there are any correlations between the amount of pollinators, weather conditions, and the use of pesticides.” Students also took pictures and GPS coordinates to document their recordings. At the end of the course, students made a formal research presentation to the class in order to “get a complete experience in gathering data, manipulating the data, and presenting the data,” as Barker notes.

In addition to their fieldwork for the pollinator project, Barker incorporated other geological fieldtrips. The class visited Devil’s Lake, Cave of the Mounds and an open-pit mine south of Madison. Kim, a computer science major, liked the course even though it was not directly related to her major. “I really enjoyed our fieldtrips because we went to natural areas, where there are a lot of flowers, bees and other small animals. It was so wonderful to just be there and observe the world around you–smell everything,” she says.

Geoscience 376 fieldtrip to open-pit mine
Geoscience 376 fieldtrip to open-pit mine. Photo credit: Bill Barker.

The 30 students from NU’s SHSS took Agricultural and Applied Economics (AAE) 375: Social Science Research Practicum with Professor Kyle Stiegert. These students consisted of economics, political science and international relations majors. The course was designed around the production of individual or small-group research papers. Stiegert corresponded with students while they were still in Kazakhstan, asking them to select a research topic and in some cases bring datasets from their home university.

Once they arrived at UW-Madison, SHSS students spent much of the eight-week session focused on their singular project. Stiegert juxtaposed this type of intensive research project with students’ typical research experience, which is limited to a paper written in the final weeks of a semester. Shane Auerbach, a teaching assistant for the course, elaborates on this research focus, “The course isn’t teaching econometrics. They have that theoretical knowledge. They already have the knowledge they need to apply to these projects. They just haven’t been given the time and opportunity to really put it into an applied setting. So we’ve been shepherding them through that applied setting.”

The projects covered a range of topics, including the impact of Westernization on divorce rates in Kazakhstan; whether Islamic banking would be beneficial to Kazakhstan; fiscal management of oil revenue in Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan; whether there are economic benefits to firms that practice empathy; immigration into Europe from North Africa; and the effects of the Eurasian Trade Union on various industries.

Stiegert and Auerbach were very impressed with the quality of the NU students’ projects. Their work at UW will undoubtedly inform senior projects and future graduate studies. “Some of them, if they continue with this work, could end up being publishable products for peer-reviewed journals,” Stiegert says enthusiastically.

NU and UW students visiting the International Crane Foundation
NU and UW students visiting the International Crane Foundation. Photo credit: Laura Weigel.

VISP offered students an opportunity to consider new options for their futures. In addition to taking either Geoscience 376 or AAE 375 as a required course, NU students enrolled in another UW-Madison summer course of their own choosing. Many of the students, including Kim and Pavel Kosmynin, took Management and Human Resources 322: Introduction to Entrepreneurial Management. Kosmynin, an economics major, explains his choice, “I wanted to take a course that we don’t have at NU. I chose Entrepreneurial Management because in recent times in Kazakhstan we have developed these business contests in companies, and I wanted to take a course related to this.”

Kosmynin’s experience at UW this summer has opened a range of possibilities for his future. Although he had previously only considered private sector careers, his work in AAE 375 presented academia as a possible trajectory. His research project for the course focused on the factors of inflation in Russia. “I care about that because our countries are very closely connected. What happens to them [Russia] will happen to us [Kazakhstan] soon,” he explains. After discussing graduate school with Auerbach, Kosmynin realized that academia may provide a cooperative environment for him to continue studying such topics “that people talk about on the streets because they affect everybody.” And if he does elect a private sector career, Kosmynin says the Entrepreneurial Management course “changed my understanding of things and made me think more deeply about creating my own venture.” Taken together, Kosmynin observes, his summer at UW “broadened the horizons of my opportunities.”

NU students’ experiences at the University of Wisconsin-Madison as visiting international students have a range of benefits beyond the specifics of the courses they took. Stiegert hoped to instill “an appreciation for the difference between being a person that collects information and truly evaluates information.” He continues, “Most undergraduates have learned how to collect information. Getting them from doing that to actually interpreting information is sometimes a very difficult thing.” Grasping these critical thinking skills can significantly boost students’ confidence.

Auerbach emphasizes UW-Madison’s role in cultivating confidence for these students, explaining, “They know NU is an ambitious university, but they don’t really know the degree to which being successful there is going to translate to outside institutions. So when they come to UW and see they can be successful in classes here, I’m hoping they get the impression that they’re not just good. They’re not just Kazakhstan’s best students; they’re top international candidates.”

This was an important realization for Nazerke Moldakyn. After receiving low grades for the first time in spring 2015, Moldakyn entered the VISP program feeling that she should give up on pursuing a career. But her experiences here restored her self-confidence. She elaborates, “I had felt so disappointed in myself. […] But here, when I went to office hours with Shane [Auerbach], the first words he said were, ‘You did a great job.’”

Because “everything was so flexible and even more student-oriented than at NU,” Moldakyn took ownership of her research project, which compared the nationalized oil industries of Russia, Mexico, and Saudi Arabia. She summarizes, “I got the feeling that that is my research. I’m not fitting the expectations of Shane [Auerbach] or Professor Stiegert. The final product was totally my creation. I really enjoyed that–this attitude towards students.”

NU students got the full UW experience
NU students got the full UW experience. Photo credit: Laura Weigel.

And the feeling is mutual. Barker, Stiegert and Auerbach were all impressed with the NU students and found their summer working with them extremely rewarding. And they are eager to point out that UW benefits from the relationship with NU as well. On one level, the UW-Madison Partnership with Nazarbayev University is a fee-for-service agreement. But Barker notes, “We’re not just doing it for money. We’re doing it because people are genuinely interested in scholarship. Lots of people have been able to advance their own scholarly agendas within the framework of this relationship, in a uniquely UW way. We’ve applied a much more collaborative perspective to the partnership with NU.”

As an extension of the Wisconsin Idea, the University of Wisconsin-Madison Partnership with Nazarbayev University is an opportunity for UW-Madison to extend the benefits of its knowledge, in this case throughout the world. Stiegert noted that Kazakhstan has experienced great economic growth—as well as economic challenges—in recent decades and continues pursuing dynamic ways to grow its economy and its higher education system. With this partnership, he said, UW-Madison is establishing global connections that will benefit the state of Wisconsin and the region by laying the foundation for economic and intellectual exchanges. Stiegert concludes, “Just having this dialogue always generates outcomes that tend to be positive and tend to surprise you.