Edward Frame: Let’s begin by asking about your background. Can you say a little about where you come from, how you made your way to UW-Madison, and what motivated you to study History and Political Science?
Jack Styler: I was born and raised in Whitefish Bay, Wisconsin. I have always been interested in history, so going to UW-Madison and studying History was a very natural next step after high school. I love history because it’s all about telling stories and discovering the reasons why the world looks the way it does today.
Frame: For the past year, you taught English at KIMEP University, a non-profit educational institution in Almaty, Kazakhstan. Tell us how you found that opportunity and what motivated you to apply for it.
Styler: Most of my friends at UW-Madison were international students. Hanging around with them motivated me to seek out an international experience after graduation, especially since the pandemic had put an end to travel for most of my time in college.
So, I applied for a Princeton in Asia (PiA) Fellowship after hearing about it from a friend. PiA is a great organization that sends people all over the continent of Asia. I had always been curious about Central Asia, so when PiA offered me a fellowship to teach in Kazakhstan, I said yes.
Frame: Almaty is quite large, with over 2 million inhabitants; it is also a very religiously and ethnically diverse city. Does your student population reflect the city and its demographics at large? What are your students like? How old are they? What are their ambitions for school, if such generalizations are possible?
Styler: My students’ backgrounds mirrored the ethnic diversity of Central Asia. Though students of Kazakh descent made up the majority, there were also students of Uyghur, Uzbek, Tajik, Kyrgyz, Tartar, and Russian background at the university. My students mostly practiced Islam, though there were some Christians as well. I taught first-year college students who were 17, 18, or 19 years old. As is typical for students that age, many of them were just starting to figure out what they wanted to study and what type of career they wanted to pursue. KIMEP University is one of just a few universities in the region where English is the language of instruction, so many of my students were from wealthier backgrounds and planned on possibly pursuing higher education outside of Kazakhstan in the future.
Frame: What does your day look like? Are the teaching methods you’ve adopted similar to what you experienced in the United States? How did you prepare to step into your teaching role?
Styler: My day-to-day consisted of waking up, finishing lesson plans, teaching one to three classes, depending on the day, and sometimes holding office hours. I realized early on that the education system in Kazakhstan was largely based on rote memorization and drilling exercises from a textbook. So I tried to incorporate more activity-based lessons: simulations, games, partner-speaking activities, etc. Overall, these worked well, but it took time. Teaching is a very difficult job, and I found that the only way to get better at it was to do it a lot. Thankfully, due to my course load, I had ample opportunity to do so!
Frame: Have you found your background in History and Political Science helpful in your work as a teacher? If so, can you explain how these disciplines have influenced your approach to pedagogy or your state-of-mind as a foreigner living abroad?
Styler: My background in History and Political Science was incredibly helpful to my work as a teacher. I believe degrees in the humanities and social science change how you view the world. As a teacher, this helped me understand the history of Kazakhstan and how that history might manifest itself in my students’ views of the world.
Frame: What have been some of your most memorable or impactful moments over the last year—both in and outside of the university where you teach? What do you feel you’ve learned from the experience?
Styler: The best moment in the classroom came at the end of my second semester teaching. By then, I felt more comfortable in the classroom and developed a great rapport with my students. On the last day, they very graciously gave me and another teacher gifts, and we all celebrated the hard work they had put in throughout the semester.
Outside of the classroom, the memories that have stuck with me most have been from my travels throughout Central Asia. I was lucky enough to have time to travel to Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and other parts of Kazakhstan over the course of the year. There were days that felt surreal. I remember cramped twenty-four-hour rides in an Uzbek train car. I remember wind storms from Afghanistan descending on the Tajik capital of Dushanbe which made the landscape look like another planet. I remember the view from the peaks of 4,000-meter mountains in Almaty and looking out toward the Kazakh-Kyrgyz border. Though it may seem reductive, the opportunity to travel widely around the region has left me with an incredible sense of awe at the scale of the world and the vastness of the human experience.
Frame: You are planning to apply for a Fulbright Scholarship to continue teaching abroad next year, in Latvia. Say more about that opportunity. Why do you want to continue teaching and living abroad?
Styler: Yes! I enjoyed my time in Kazakhstan so much that I am applying for a Fulbright Grant to teach in Latvia next year. Latvia, specifically, offers a lot, both professionally and personally. First of all, I think teaching is an amazing opportunity to practice and refine my communication skills while simultaneously experiencing a taste of life in a new country. While in Kazakhstan, I also began to study Russian. Although Russian is being spoken less and less in Latvia, there are still ample opportunities to practice the language, especially in some regions of the country. After spending time in Kazakhstan, I believe that it is more important than ever to engage with the post-Soviet world outside of Russia. Lastly, on a personal note, Latvia has a complicated place in my family’s history. My great grandpa immigrated from Latvia to the United States in the 1930s. His siblings stayed behind and were killed by Latvian Nazi sympathizers during the Holocaust. So I see a potential Fulbright in Latvia as a way to come to terms with my own family’s history and to rebuild bridges severed by the Holocaust.
Frame: What is your ultimate career goal? Would you like to teach professionally in the long-term?
Styler: I’m not sure what my ultimate career goal is. I think that I’ve come back from Kazakhstan with more questions than answers, which is okay at this point in my life. I plan on going to graduate school at some point in the next few years, but I want to make sure that I make the right decision for graduate school. That is why I am so excited at the possibility of teaching in Latvia—it would, hopefully, be another experience that will help narrow down what I do and don’t want to do as a career.
Frame: Is there anything else you’d like to say about your experience in Kazakhstan this past year, or your time as a Mosse Fellow, that you haven’t had an opportunity to address yet? Final thoughts?
Styler: Go abroad. That is my takeaway from this year and my advice for UW-Madison students. I never would have heard about the Princeton in Asia Program if a friend had not told me about it. So I would encourage students to investigate PiA and other programs that send recent graduates abroad, and I think that UW-Madison could and should do more to promote programs like this.