By David Fleet
From Kazakhstan on the eastern boarder of China and Russia through nine time zones, 6,000 miles and a host of cultural differences Dana Akhmeden arrived in Goodrich.
“Coming to the United States is my childhood dream,” said Dana, 16. “I watched movies of the United States, learned about the country and I wanted the experience — to see the people’s culture and way of life.”
Dana arrived in Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport in August and is a host of the local Hawley family. She is here as a ASSE or World Heritage Exchange student. The U.S. State Department is the sponsor of the Future Leaders Exchange (FLEX) Program which provides scholarships for high school students, like Dana from Europe and Eurasia to spend an academic year in the United States, living with a family and attending an American high school.
The drive from Chicago to Goodrich, her first visions of the United States, was not all that memorable she recalls.
“My first impression was a lot of corn and fields,” she said.
Dana is a resident of Uralsk, a city of about 250,000 in northwestern Kazakhstan, near the Ural and Chagan rivers close to the Russian border. She is a student at Middle Nazarbayev Intellectual School in Uralsk with one year remaining prior to graduation. Her studies and day-to-day life as a student differs from Goodrich High School.
“To study at my school you need to have an exam,” she said. “Then education is free and we have uniforms—I like it. However, I also like being here in Goodrich without a uniform because people can show their individuality and style. We are also not allowed to color our hair.”
Dana’s lives in a flat in Uralsk with her parents, sisters 19 and 12, along with her 4-year-old brother. Her father is an administrator at West Kazakhstan University also located in Uralsk
He was a professor of geography, geology and biology, with many field studies in Kazakhstan.
While still challenging, Dana finds the studies at Goodrich High School much easier than her school in Uralsk.
“Teachers here are more helpful and provide support,” she said.
“If you have mistakes they never say anything bad to you. Compared to my home school where they would be quick to correct your mistakes. The classes here are more interesting. Also, you have many options for lunch here at Goodrich and there are sports here and I’m a cheerleader now. We have no sports at my school. But, I’m a soccer fan at home and attended a Goodrich football game—my first. Although, I’m still learning the rules.”
There are no school buses in Uralsk, rather public transportation or other means take students to school.
“You have to be 18-years-old to drive in Kazakhstan,” she said. “Here it’s 16-years-old to get a driver’s licence. I just can’t imagine my peers at home driving me somewhere. Here at Goodrich everyone drives.”
Following graduation from high school in Kazakhstan, Dana plans on returning someday to the United States and studying in New York City.
“I want to study in New York and then return to Kazakhstan to live,” she said. “It’s more high quality education here, more opportunities and experiences here in the United States.”
She is considering international studies and business, but keeping her options open.
Dana speaks and writes English well, learning the language in kindergarten. Language studies continued in first grade where Kazakh, Russian and English are taught.
“The American slag is new to me,” she said.
America is all Dana expected.
“I’ve liked it here so far,” she said “I’m not home sick but afraid my little brother will forget me.”
She communicates with peers in Kazakhstan via Instagram and Whatsapp, sharing her new life in the United States
“I like American food, but the portions are too big,” she said.
Dana misses her native dish, Kazakh Beshbarmak or “five fingers” in Kazakhstan. The name five fingers is what is required to enjoy it, all five of them. Typically this dish is made with either horse meat or mutton.
While she is adapting to the American high school culture,
“You are not afraid to express yourself here,” she said. “You have the freedom to say things without worrying about the consequences.”