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More Than Yurts, Yaks, and Genghis Khan: A Volunteer’s Vision of Central Asia

Dec 17 2018

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Majestic golden eagles, flying high above the Altai mountains. Toothless, leathered faces of village elders huddled around coal fires, sipping yak butter tea. These are the prototypical images of Central Asia that CREEES M.A. candidate Jake Zawlacki attempted to dispel as he spoke to a group of students at Slavianskii Dom (SlavDom), the undergraduate Slavic academic theme house. For an audience of undergraduate and graduate students, Zawlacki painted a more representative picture of his time in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan; Astana, Kazakhstan; and Ulgii, Mongolia, where he conducted medical anthropology research and community youth development projects for three years. For Zawlacki, the hackneyed tropes of eagle hunting yurt-dwellers described only a small portion of what he described as a vivid and oft-misunderstood region.

In his talk, Zawlacki touched upon some of the realities of life as a Peace Corps volunteer, and then as a Fulbright researcher. Undergraduate students were especially keen on hearing about the myriad dishes that he ate while abroad, and the challenges of serving as a community organizer in a community that is not one’s own. Zawlacki discussed the challenges of working with youth groups, helping motivate them to balance competing duties of home and school.   The students with whom he worked often had to shoulder responsibilities equal to that of adults; young women especially had to manage a challenging balance between schoolwork and community duties. Zawlacki indicated that the students were bright, very curious, and extremely capable, and loved playing sports and taking part in all kinds of extra-curriculars.

Many undergraduate students in attendance expressed interest in working abroad, and were ready with questions about the practical challenges of immersive volunteer work. Zawlacki identified isolation as a primary problem for retention in programs like the Peace Corps, and described how a rich community of ex-pats helped him make the most of the experience. He described occasional moments of absurdity - interactions with brusque border guards, wild van rides across the steppe, or being at least a foot taller than most people in his village. Zawlacki also emphasized unexpected friendships with locals and a strong sense of community he encountered as shaping his time in the region.  Zawlacki will be returning to Kazakhstan this month to conduct archival research for his M.A. capstone thesis on the history of Kazakh animation film.