How Far Are You Willing To Go To Achieve Your Dream?
Imagine. To see things that are not real is one of the most important things that makes us human. To imagine is to have a vision, a way of seeing that opens up new paths and new ways of living. If you think what I have just written is far too grand a claim, then read what Syrga has to say.
Can you give us a brief overview of where you are from? I am fairly certain that many people are not very familiar with Kyrgyzstan.
I am from a country called Kyrgyzstan, which is located in Central Asia. It boarders with China in the South and South-East,. more than ninety percent of its geography consists of mountains. It declared its independence from U.S.S.R. in 1991. Kyrgyzstan has much natural beauty with mountain-lakes and valleys, as well as a long history and unique culture.
Syrga: family photo
Can you tell us about your family and where you lived?
I am the eldest of eight children, I have six sisters and one brother. Both of my parents are in their early forties. They got married young. We live on a farm which is an hour and a half walking distance from the nearest village, near the mountains. My father is a farmer; he takes care of animals all day long and also works on the land. My mom runs all the house-work from building a fire in the morning to making bread every day. In short, I would compare our life style to the Mennonites in the US.
A person who came to Kyrgyzstan changed your life. Would you talk about how you met this person, what she did and then describe what you did after meeting her? How hard was it just to get to school?
A person who changed my life was a Peace Corps volunteer. In 2010, she came to my village’s school to teach English. At that point, I was starting 8th grade and knew only a couple of words in English. Probably you are wondering about the change in my life. Just six years ago I couldn’t even dream of being where I am now. My mom had me at the same age I am right now. But, after meeting the Peace Corps volunteer, I realized that I wanted to change my life. She taught me English, which I learned very fast, and after a year I won a scholarship to come to America. It was a life changing experience, since my parents could not afford for me to do it. Imagine, not long ago, I would ride a donkey for miles to get to school and now I am American college student.
You have talked about how being the oldest and being female was initially a problem for your parents when it came to getting an education. Can you describe this and then tell us how and why they changed their minds.
Today, many parents have difficulties with the cost of education cost for their kids. It is hard for my parents to raise eight children without a consistent wage. My father has a small farm; he takes care of animals such as sheep, cows and horses all day long, in addition to preparing the grass, growing crops, watering lands. My mom is a housewife, she cooks food, makes bread every day and so much more. The kids, us, try to help them as much as we can, by bringing water from the river, cleaning the house, doing the laundry of ten people by hand, and looking after chickens and turkeys while still studying hard.
What was the school like that you attended? How much instruction did you get in learning English?
Since my village was small, around two thousand people, my school normally has up to two hundred students. Unlike the US, from first grade to eleventh grade, students study in one building. The smallest number of students in a grade is four and the biggest is twenty-seven. In Kyrgyzstan, we have only eleven grades. Before the Peace Corps volunteer came to our school, we learned topics in English, which we forgot after exams. Classes were just twice a week for forty-five minutes, which is not enough for learning a foreign language.
Kyrgyz teacher traveling to school
What helped you decide that you would apply to universities in the US? Were there people who helped you to sign up for the tests and do all you needed to do?
After my exchange year in the U.S. I went back to Kyrgyzstan, I graduated from my high school and applied to universities in the capital city of my country. I got accepted into all four that I applied to. Since my parents could not afford to pay the equivalent of two thousand dollars in tuition, I chose to study at Kyrgyz Turkish Manas University, which awarded me a full scholarship to study all four years. It is one of the best universities in Kyrgyzstan known for great education but, also very competitive. While studying there, I understood that I needed to challenge myself more and decided to apply to universities in the U.S.
How did you decide which universities to apply to? How many did you apply to? Why did you end up selecting Bridgewater?
During my exchange year, my host father graduated from Bridgewater, and during my exchange year I did a college visit to Bridgewater. I also applied to Austen College in Texas and got accepted. Unfortunately, the scholarship they offered was little bit less than Bridgewater. So, I decided to study at Bridgewater College.
Was it a big culture shock coming to the US? What was the hardest thing to adjust to?
I have grown up in a big family, with a community based lifestyle, where everybody knows each other; here I have to make decisions for myself. Initially, I did not like when people said to me, “make choices for yourself”. Probably learning to become an individual at the right time in life was difficult for me.
Can you talk about your experience at Bridgewater? How do you like your classes, and what is your major? Do you have a mentor?
I love my classes very much. I am taking a variety of classes, anything from Global Politics to Psychology and also Business. My major is Global Studies. I do have a mentor who helps me with time management and class assignments. The transition is very difficult from high school to college. I faced challenges in the beginning of my first semester. I knew that it is my responsibility to be a successful student and I used resources like Academic Coach in my college: An upperclassman helped with time management and class assignments. I also went to all of my professors during their office hours. All of these helped me to be a better student.
What do you do outside of classes that you like?
There are so many opportunities at my college to grow as a person. I am involved with World Languages Club, I participate in Emerging Leaders Program, and am currently attending Orientation Leader trainings to become an Orientation Leader this April. Also, I just returned from a Habitat for Humanity trip in Georgia. It was an alternative Spring Break Trip. I also became a mentor in a new program called Ivy League Academy. This is a mentorship program for Kyrgyz high school students to help them with the admissions to American Colleges. I am trying to share what I have learned with other students.
Who do you hang out with? Do you get tired of having to explain to people where your country is and what it is like?
Though clubs and organizations I have found many friends. They are all open-minded, active and interesting students. I do not get tired of explaining or telling people about my country. I would say I love introducing my country to people, because I understand that my country is one of the developing countries, so many people do not know about it. I made presentations about Kyrgyzstan, and each time I have an opportunity to teach people about my country and culture. In addition, I gave presentations at the International Nights at the elementary schools, to a different Sunday school classes at the church, and of course in my classes. I look for opportunities to talk about my country.
How do you think you have changed since coming to the US?
America taught me to value differences in everyone and everything. It helped me to distinguish between a problem and a beautiful solution. For instance, I saw the beauty of my culture, but realized it is not perfect and it needs us, her people, to work on issues such as education, public health and so on.
You had to overcome many things to get where you are today. What advice do you have for student out there who want to try to change their lives through education? What kept you going to achieve your dream? Do you feel you are role model?
In my opinion, a true role model will not say that he or she is a role model. People will get to decide this. I did what I thought is best for me. Some people may think I am crazy, but some will look up to me. Everything we do should make sense to us. There always will be people who will disagree with us, but I studied because I wanted to have opportunities to choose from, instead of being forced to do something I did not want to, and education gives that opportunity. Achieving a dream can be hard, but a strong belief in a dream can help you to overcome the difficulties.
Do you have any specific plans once you graduate?
After my graduation, I want to go back to my country and do development work, especially in the villages. As I talked earlier about Ivy League Academy, I wish to provide opportunities to as many students as possible to take advantage of education. I am planning to learn as much as I can before I return. Now, I do not yet have enough skills and knowledge accomplish what I want.
How much is your education worth? Some would answer this question with a dollar amount; others would answer it with a philosophical approach. Syrga answers it in ways that should both inspire and also encourage us to think outside our own bubble. Her story of how she came to be where she is now demonstrates the importance of having what some call grit, the personal trait that drives people to accomplish things despite obstacles. Syrga has, by her imaginative vision, paved a path to becoming a future leader in her country.
There are more lessons to be learned from her story too. One of the things that matters most to students who have to face challenges because of income or background is finding a mentor. Syrga’s Peace Corp volunteer changed her life. For those who think that service work, does not change things they need to simply read Syrga’s words. Syrga now sees the importance of service to her her education too. She has been involved in Alternative Spring break and other efforts to help people. More importantly, she has joined an organization in Kyrgyzstan that will help more students like her find educational opportunities in the US. The term “pay it forward” applies here.
What readers should also gather from Syrga is that she serves as an important part of the educational environment at Bridgewater College. She shares her background, culture and story with others around her and in doing so she opens their minds to things they did not know much about. The word “diversity” gets used in a lot of ways but I cannot think of anyone who would think that Syrga would not add invaluable diversity to a campus. And yet, there are many in the US ad around the world that tend to lump Asian students into one big category. Syga’s words demonstrate how faulty stereotypes are.
I would like to thank Syrga for taking the time to answer my questions. I have been very lucky to get to know her. Growing up I was told stories of those intrepid students who lived in rural locations and had to travel may miles and hours to get to school. One of these students was Abraham Lincoln. Syrga’s passion for education and for making positive change indicates she will be a leader too.