In mid-October, I finally paid a visit to the capital ofneighboring Zhambyl Oblast, a pretty southern city that now goes by the name ofTaraz. Examinations for theprestigious FLEX Program were being held, and a few of us Americans were signedup to help proctor. FLEX standsfor Future Leaders Exchange Program, and it sends a select group ofKazakhstanian high schoolers to the U.S. for one year of exchange study, allexpenses paid. I personally thinkprograms like these are the best public diplomacy tool we have in our box, andit is abundantly clear to me the benefits for both our countries to allowtalented young people the opportunity to be cultural ambassadors for Kazakhstanin the U.S. (much like we PCVs are for the U.S. here!).
The FLEX program is run by the American Councils in Almaty,and they do quite a rigorous job with the testing. There are three different stages: a simple, 16-questionmultiple choice test of English vocabulary, grammar and reading; a series ofessay questions followed by a much longer “SLEP” English language test similarto the paper-based TOEFL; and finally an interview, which focuses on contentand most of which is actually not conducted in English. The first stage of the test alone isquite rigorous, testing knowledge of English idioms and conversational rhetoricalong with fast reading comprehension – only 30-40% of applicants make it outof the very first cut. Altogetherseveral thousand apply every year, and only a little over 100 go – making theprogram just as selective (if not more so) as getting into the most elitecolleges in the U.S.
Helping to administer the test was quite an interestingexperience. There was a sea ofexcited young people and I think we were all touched at how many of them valuedthe idea of an American education, were interested in English, and wanted toparticipate in the program. Westruggled to control the masses, get everyone to stand in a line, not push, andfill out their documents correctly. Sipra came up with the ingenious idea tonot let anyone have a “card” (a ticket to entry into the exam) unless they werestill, waiting patiently and not shoving or reaching over others to grab. Eventually we even held an Americantrivia game to keep the students occupied during what ended up being severalhours of waiting for many – we asked questions like “What is the biggest state?”“Who was President of the U.S. during World War II and the Great Depression?”and (no one got this one correct though, sadly) “What is the name of ournational anthem?”
[crowd of students at the FLEX testing!]
Several Shymkent students that we knew passed the firstround and were very excited –all of them of course had worked very hard andwere very well-deserving. Cheatingturned out to be not as much of a problem as anticipated, though students wereof course not very used to the strictness of our proctoring. 😉 Because it is Kazakhstan, everyone gotone red X warning for any signs of cheating (looking at someone else’s paper,starting early, not finishing when time is called), with the second X resultingin disqualification (no need here to mention how this compares to theno-tolerance policy in the U.S….can’t imagine a strike system for cheatingthere!). Luckily we didn’t have tothrow anyone out during our proctoring sessions. 😉
After a long and tiring day of testing on very little sleep(I had gotten up at around 5 a.m. that morning to catch a ride to Taraz with mycounterpart and her son), we got to rest up and explore the city a bit thefollowing day. Thanks to fellowPCVs Mark, Michael and Courtney for hosting and showing us around! I saw the old mausoleum, central squareand “lover’s lane,” hung around the bazaar, had a stereotypically confusingKazakh dining experience (in which the restaurant was half-diner half-buffet soit was unclear whether you were supposed to serve yourself or be served; thewaiter stood around awkwardly while we were in the middle of talking but didn’tcome for ages when we were ready to leave; and of course, the bill came outwrong with higher prices than were originally marked), and window shopped at alocal boutique. Taraz is muchsmaller than Shymkent but is very clean, green and pretty. It was a gorgeous fall weekend and Ivery much enjoyed the trip!
[At the Taraz mausoleum(s)]