As he walked through the front doors of West with all the other students, he brought with him a confidence uncommon in those like him. He had studied this country for years and, even though he was on his own, he was ready to tackle the challenge head-on. America was and still is everything Dias Alikhan, West’s foreign exchange student from Kazakhstan, had hoped for.
Alikhan has dreamed of moving to the U.S. for years, so when he heard about the foreign exchange program from his teacher, he was hooked. His parents encouraged him to go through the long application process of tests and paperwork, and it paid off. Approximately 2000 students in the country were selected to be a part of the program, and he was one of them.
Having never been outside of Kazakhstan before, Alikhan marveled at features any West student would dismiss as mundane. He appreciated taking four classes per semester rather than seven classes year long, saying it allowed students to be more concentrated on one or two particular subjects. Although his initial schedule, fit for the average junior, contained classes that were much easier than he expected, he quickly found classes that suited his needs.
Even details as small as compliments are wondrously new to Alikhan.
“There’s definitely a cultural difference,” Alikhan said. “In my country, it’s weird to tell a stranger something like, ‘Hey, I like your shoes.’ People in my country would think that’s unusual. Experiencing this different culture and its difficulties and working through them on my own, without the help of anyone like my parents, is really amazing. In my country, you can ask your parents and friends for help if you have problems. You are kind of on your own here. It helps to think more like an adult, and it helps you grow up.”
Although America has its challenges for Alikhan, his extensive research into the country has given him the information and confidence to overcome them. Kazakhstan’s primary languages are Kazakh and Russian, stemming from their involvement in the Soviet Union. Their foreign language classes, as is typical for most countries, only provide a basic understanding of the language. However, Alikhan took several advanced English classes as extra courses, so he is well versed in the language.
One of Alikhan’s struggles is the American diet. He misses the meat-centric diet of Kazakhstan, as well as its chocolate. However, according to Alikhan, this issue pales in comparison to the biggest issue that foreign exchange students face: isolation.
“There’s no one that you’re used to, like your friends and your parents. You’re on your own,” Alikhan said. “Making friends is hard, too. The culture is different, and what teenagers talk about here is quite different that what I’m used to talking about. It was hard in the beginning to make some friends.”
There are many exchange programs to choose from, but Alikhan is part of the Future Leader Exchange (FLEX) program. According to discoverflex.org, the program is funded by the U.S. Department of State, which gives scholarships to the small amount of students in the program’s participating 19 countries who are able to pass its series of tests. Since the program’s creation in 1993, only around 26,000 students have passed and have been able to participate. However, those who participate have all of their expenses paid.
This program is highly competitive, and for good reason. According to exchangestudent.org, the exchange experience usually enhances a student’s resume and application. Most colleges and universities see exchange programs as opportunities of growth and expansion of the student’s capabilities, drive and perspective.
FLEX, like all other foreign exchange programs, sets up students with a host family to live with during their stay. Living with a family unlike their own can be difficult for exchange students, but Alikhan says he has found his new family comfortingly familiar.
“There’s my host dad, my host mom, and my host siblings. My host sister is older than me by three years; she’s 19; and my host little brother is 12,” Alikhan said. “The siblings are the big difference from my family back home. In my country I have a 12-year-old younger sister. The good thing is that my parents and my host parents are quite similar. All the jokes and the things we talk about during dinner and stuff are the same.”
Alikhan’s experiences in America are just beginning, but he is already encouraging his friends in Kazakhstan to attempt the program as well. Despite his research on the U.S., he said he is surprised by new things every day, and is delighted to experience and share them with others.
“About 80 percent of it was not how I expected,” Alikhan said. “I changed my view a lot. I thought people in America were like people in Kazakhstan. People here are more friendly than I thought. Kazakhstan is one of the friendliest countries in the world. People here are different, but they’re still just as friendly.”
By: Nathan Turpin, News Editor