Global Studies and Political Science Major Investigates Language Politics in Kazakhstan
April 30, 2018
In the Central Asian country of Kazakhstan, Caitlin Walczyk practiced her Russian in cab rides across the city of Almaty. The double major in global studies and political science spent nine months in Kazakhstan as a Boren Scholar, an award that supports undergraduate language study in countries vital to U.S. security interests.
In those conversations with locals, Walczyk became intrigued by the relationship between language and cultural identity — sparking a research project that would crisscross Central Asia, form the basis of her senior thesis and lead her to a career path in international law.
Immersion in Kazakhstan
Walczyk applied to the majority-Russian-speaking Kazakhstan to improve her language skills and pursue her interest in post-World War II history. She took language and culture classes at Al-Farabi Kazakh National University and stayed with a host family, with whom she spoke only Russian. Though Walczyk had studied both Russian and German at Drexel, complete immersion was a new challenge.
“When I first arrived in Kazakhstan, I couldn’t communicate with my host parents at all; it felt too fast and too complex,” she says. “Every day I would sit down with my host mom and talk through what I had learned at school. One day I realized that we were having a full-blown conversation, and I was so happy. That was the first time I noticed that the language had ‘clicked.’”
She was welcomed by her hosts as a true family member, even delivering a speech at her host father’s birthday party during her first week in the country. Over time, her Russian improved and she was able to pick up the official state language Kazakh.
Between her studies, conversations with locals and travels on semester breaks — to the Czech Republic, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Georgia, Azerbaijan and the United Arab Emirates — Walczyk says she learned “how interesting and different the world is.”
“Kazakhstan is one of the last places that most Americans would go, but I fell in love with the culture there. It was unique to anything I had experienced and there was so much to learn,” she says. “It sparked this intense desire to understand the region. For me now, the places I want to go are the places I feel like I don’t understand.”
The Politics of Language
Walczyk’s experiences in Kazakhstan sparked a research interest that would last long after leaving the country. In her conversations with locals, she noticed differing cultural attitudes toward Kazakhstan’s two official languages, Kazakh and Russian.
Like many countries in the region that used to be the Soviet Union, Kazakhstan has undergone shifting attitudes toward Russia and its own sense of national identity. Language is central to the discourse around what it means to be Kazakh.
Walczyk says, “I was learning language from the people; they would talk to me about what it was like being Kazakh after the Soviet Union. A lot of Kazakhs speak Russian and don’t know Kazakh. They’ve had this push to go back to their language roots.”
Wanting to explore the link between national identity and language, Walczyk conducted research with the international relations department at her university in Kazakhstan. Upon returning to Drexel, she delved more intensely into the politics of the region in an independent study with Lloyd Ackert, PhD, associate teaching professor of history.
“Dr. Ackert gave me a lot of guidance and helped me tailor my research,” she says, noting that he also speaks Russian. “I would tell him my ideas about what I had found, and he would push them farther.”
Her project and diverse international experiences have inspired her to pursue a career in law. She has already completed two of her co-ops at Philadelphia law firms, one of which continues to employ her part time as a paralegal. She was recently accepted into several top-10 law programs and ultimately aspires to work in public international law at the United Nations.
Finding Her Calling
Walczyk has long been interested in exploring language and culture in a research context. Beginning as a freshman in the STAR program, she worked with Simone Schlicting-Artur, EdD, teaching professor of German, to research intercultural communication competence in globally oriented classrooms. She has continued with the project throughout her time at Drexel, which has helped her find her niche within her major.
“My global studies major has been the best thing I could have imagined. The faculty are good at helping you figure out what you’re interested in and what you want to do,” Walczyk says. “Other students in my major are interested in completely different things — they might have expertise in Latin America or China — but they are all so focused. It’s crazy how we can have the same major but such different paths.”
While many of her Drexel experiences appear to tie neatly together, Walczyk says that finding her career path took a lot of figuring out — and a little luck.
“I’ve always been interested in post-World War II geopolitics, but I never planned to get to where I am today. It all just fell together, and Kazakhstan is where it all culminated. I realized that international law and foreign policy is what I want to do — what I’ve wanted to do all along,” she says.