We had the pleasure of interviewing Elyse Ostroske, a native of Temecula, California, who studied microbiology, immunology, and molecular genetics at UCLA for four years before pursuing the Russian Flagship Capstone year in Almaty, Kazakhstan. Today, Elyse shares with us her experiences and insights gained from this year. We interviewed Elyse via Zoom, and the text has been edited for length and clarity.
Why did you decide to study Russian?
When I was about to begin UCLA as a freshman, I received an email from Dr. Vroon, the department chair, inviting freshmen to apply for the Russian Flagship. I decided to take this opportunity for a couple of reasons. Firstly, I was interested in studying a language in college since I had enjoyed studying Spanish in high school. Secondly, I wanted to explore something different and had always been intrigued by Slavic languages due to my Polish heritage. Though I had tried self-studying Polish a few times, I had not made much progress. As a science major, I thought learning Russian would be useful because of its historical importance in the scientific world. So, I enrolled in Russian 1 and enjoyed it so much that I decided to continue in the Flagship program. Now, I’m in Almaty, Kazakhstan for my Capstone year, and am grateful for the opportunities and experiences that learning Russian has given me.
What do your parents think about you studying in Kazakhstan?
Initially, when I first mentioned the possibility of going to another country to my parents, they were a little nervous. At that point, they hadn’t even heard of Kazakhstan but thought it was a far-off possibility since it was still 4 or 5 years away. But as the time drew closer, they had more questions and their concerns grew. Eventually, by the time I had to leave, everyone was on board. Recently, my mom visited me during our spring break, and it was an incredible experience to be able to show her around and introduce here to Almaty. I introduced her to my host family, took her to my school, and brought her on my daily routine. It was a lot of fun to share my life in Almaty with her.
Let's discuss your experience in Almaty. How has your perception of Almaty changed since you began living there, and what was the adjustment process like for you in terms of adapting to the culture?
Living in Almaty has been both similar to and different from what I had anticipated. Prior to my arrival, I had taken courses at UCLA on Kazakh history, culture, and language, and had completed a summer program with teachers from Kazakhstan. But being here in person was a completely different experience. Adapting to a new country was a big adjustment for me since I had never been abroad for more than a few days and had traveled with my family. Adjusting to the cultural nuances that I had previously only learned about in theory was fascinating. For example, I found it interesting that people on the street don't say "excuse me," and that driving is quite different from what I was used to in LA. People in Almaty don't typically walk around smiling on the street, which was a cultural difference that I had been warned about. Trying new foods and adjusting to living with my host family were also significant experiences. Although it was a big adjustment, I loved my host family, and they were similar in makeup to my own family, which was helpful. The biggest challenges were adjusting to the weather and the food. While the snow was exciting and new at first, I eventually grew tired of it, and I missed the sunny weather and diverse cuisine of LA.
What do you find amazing about Kazakhstan, and could you share some of your favorite experiences that you've had here?
One of the most amazing things about Kazakhstan is its beautiful nature. Recently, I went up to Medeu and Shymbulak, and it was an incredible experience. There was a skating rink, hiking paths, and a ski lift that took us to the very top. It was definitely one of my favorite experiences in Kazakhstan so far. Another memorable experience was when we went on a trip to the Hot Springs about a month and a half ago. On the way there, we stopped at Charynsky Canyon and hiked around it before finally getting to swim in the natural Hot Springs. I feel lucky to have had the opportunity to do it. I also had the chance to visit Uzbekistan over winter break, which was amazing. It was fascinating to compare the two countries and learn more about the history of the Silk Road. Exploring the museums, parks, and open spaces in Uzbekistan was a highlight of my trip.
Mausoleum in Samarkand, Uzbekistan
Could you share with us how your Russian language skills have improved since arriving in Kazakhstan?
Before coming to Kazakhstan, I lacked confidence in my Russian language skills. I felt nervous about speaking in public, even in English, and that carried over into my Russian studies. But being in Kazakhstan improved my confidence in speaking Russian. While I still make mistakes, I now focus less on them and am better able to improvise in the moment. My listening skills have also improved significantly since being here, thanks in part to conversations with my host family. My host mom is particularly interested in watching dramas, and we would watch them together for half an hour to an hour every night at dinner. Watching without subtitles and staying focused at the moment has really helped me to improve my listening skills. I have heard that watching TV can be a great way to improve listening skills, but it can be difficult to stay motivated when watching alone. Having someone like my host mom who was invested and able to explain things quickly and clearly made all the difference. It was much easier to do with someone who was genuinely invested and who could explain different aspects quickly, especially jokes.
Tower of Death in Bukhara, Uzbekistan
What is the current status of the Russian language in Kazakhstan? Are people still speaking it, or have you noticed any pushback against it?
I haven't witnessed any pushback against the Russian language in Kazakhstan. I've seen a coexistence of Russian and Kazakh, where people will start conversations in Russian but switch to Kazakh if prompted. At the university, students speak a mix of languages. In my internship at a biological laboratory on campus, most scientific words are in Russian but are often adopted from English. Although articles are published in English, the scientists still write their experiments in Russian and may switch between Russian and Kazakh when speaking to each other. It's interesting to see the trilingual mix of languages used in Kazakhstan, with most students speaking Kazakh among themselves but mixing in Russian words and phrases. Despite this, most posters on campus are in English, which highlights the importance of English as a global language. Overall, I’ve seen a unique mix of languages being used in everyday life.
Can you share with us about your internship? How did you come across it, and what are your responsibilities there?
I found out about my internship through our capstone internship coordinator at the university. I found out in October that I’d be working in the lab and had the opportunity to meet with the lab director for a tour and to establish my role. It's interesting because there are many undergraduate interns in the lab since it's a requirement for biology majors to work in a laboratory during their last year of university education here. The lab can be crowded since it's a small space, but I'm slowly getting more involved in learning how to do experiments alongside other undergraduates. The lab works on four main projects focusing on molecular biology. I was originally placed in a project studying protein signaling systems and protein interactions. Another section studies antibodies and the rabies virus, while another is working on creating an antibacterial treatment to protect a specific species of fish in Kazakhstan. The fourth branch is not as interactive, but all four groups are led by the head director.
Can you walk us through a typical school day for you? How many days a week do you have class, and what is your class schedule like?
Last semester, our classes were held five days a week starting from 9 am to 1 pm, followed by a lunch break and then an hour of individualized tutoring. This semester, we have classes on Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, and Friday starting at 9 am, and then we have individual tutoring sessions again. Every Wednesday, we spend a full working day at our internships from 9 am to 5 pm. The classes this semester include daily classes in reading, conversation, writing, and grammar. Last semester, we had a section on intercultural communication, while this semester, we have a section on the language of the news and another on business language. In addition, we also have a class Esentai River next to KazNU dedicated to scientific presentations to prepare for our end-of-year presentation.
Esentai River next to KazNU
What about your future professional plans?
Because my capstone year has been funded by the Boren scholarship, my plan is to fulfill its requirements by working for the federal government. Following that, I intend to apply for graduate school to study virology or immunology. Ultimately, I hope to continue working for the government, possibly with agencies such as the NIH or CDC, in a related field.
Do you have any recommendations for UCLA students who want to come to Kazakhstan in the following years?
Absolutely! First of all, I’m very grateful for my experience in Kazakhstan. I’ve made wonderful friends in the program, and my relationship with my host family has been great. That being said, I think it's important to keep in mind that some of the advice we were given handbook may need updating. For example, while shorts are prohibited on university grounds, many women wear them on the street, and leggings are also popular. So don't feel that you have to bring only bringing business casual clothes. Additionally, it gets very cold in Kazakhstan, so be sure to pack warm clothing, but it might be better to buy winter clothing here as the quality is better. And host family relationships are crucial to your experience in Kazakhstan. If you're having any issues, it's best to speak up sooner rather than later. If a change needs to be made, you'll have more time to establish a bond with a new host family. Finally, it's important to be prepared for safety issues. Sexual harassment is unfortunately prevalent in Kazakhstan, and it's something to be aware of. I hope that the program policies and pre-departure orientation continue to address this topic and even give it more focus. That said, I think studying in Kazakhstan is a wonderful opportunity, and with some preparation, it can be an amazing experience.