How U.S. Embassy, Kansas State University helped a young Kazakh shake off tragedy23 may 2015, 14:54
Timur Ilyassov will never forget his junior year in high school.
The jazz-saxophone whiz won a national competition for best student musician in Kazakhstan. That not only landed him an audience with President Nursultan Nazarbayev but a full scholarship to the prestigious Almaty Conservatory.
He also got to play at one of jazz’s biggest international events: the annual convention of the Association of Jazz Educators in New York City. The Almaty Youth Jazz Band was invited, and Timur was one of its instrumental soloists.
The Almaty native was delighted to see CNN run a clip of him playing in its news report about the event, which attracted 3,500 people, including many jazz greats.Timur and other Kansas State University students played jazz at the Ritz Charles Overland Park Hotel in Kansas City. Photo courtesy of Timur Ilyassov.
In addition to having a terrific musical year, Timur was shining academically, especially in math. His classroom prowess led to his earning a spot at the University of Economics in Almaty.
Those aware of his sparkling musical and academic accomplishments would have thought the young man’s life consisted of nothing but sunshine and promise.
But dark clouds were gathering around him.
When he was an 18-year-old freshman at the conservatory, his father Bauyrzhan died. Not long afterward he lost his mother Zaure as well.
The loss of both parents in two years sent him into a funk.
He dropped out of the conservatory, taking whatever jobs came along to make ends meet.
“The saxophone was my joy, but after I lost my parents, I couldn’t play it anymore,” he said. “My heart wasn’t in it.”
He turned inward, immersing himself in books, rarely going out.
It took five years for him to heal enough to want to return to school.
He began studying international economics at the Kazakh University of Finance, Economics and International Relations in Astana in 2010.
Two strokes of luck after he entered the university accelerated his healing, helping him return to the energetic, outgoing person he’d been.
The first stroke was learning about two programs for young Kazakhs at the U.S. Embassy in Astana.
One was American Corner, which helped him to meet interesting, talented and friendly Americans. The other was EducationUSA, which acquainted him with higher-educational opportunities in the United States, allowed him to meet American university recruiters and helped him master the U.S. university-application process. Timur and a Turkish student hoist their countries’ flags during International Week at Kansas State University. Photo courtesy of Timur Ilyassov.
The second stoke of luck was winning a scholarship to Kansas State University that was established solely for Kazakh students. K-State alumni Kent McKinney and his wife Janet started the scholarship in 2013 to thank the people of Kazakhstan for the warmth they showed the McKinneys when the couple were Peace Corps volunteers in the country in 2005.
Timur’s 2014-2015 academic year at Kansas State, which is in Manhattan, Kansas, helped him decide on the career he wants. He’s determined to work in international relations -- specifically, building bonds between the two cultures he loves, Kazakh and American.
Also figuring in his career decision were two international-relations-type internships he had while a student in Astana. One was with the Foreign Ministry, which handles Kazakhstan’s relations with other nations. The other was with KazNext Invest, an agency whose mission includes trying to interest foreigners in investing in Kazakhstan.
A momentous event during Timur’s K-State year was his picking up a saxophone again. He has been in the university’s Big Band Orchestra, performing both on campus and in the jazz mecca of Kansas City, two hours away.
The biggest surprise in his return to music was meeting the renowned jazz trumpeter Wynton Marsalis. Marsalis, who came to Kansas State in September 2014 to perform and talk about music, is a professor at New York’s famed Juilliard School of Performing Arts.Timur Ilyassov and Wynton Marsalis after the legendary jazz trumpeter performed at Kansas State University. Photo courtesy of Timur Ilyassov.
Another musical surprise was having 50 members of the Moscow State Symphony Orchestra play at K State two months after Marsalis. Timur must have found it ironic that the place where he was destined to hear the iconic Russian ensemble was the American Midwest.
The American Corner program in Astana that played a key role in Timur’s personal revival has three components – books, people-to-people interaction and English lessons.Timur hangs out with Moscow State Symphony Orchestra flute and piccolo players Alexey Mazur, left, and Seva Mukhin at Kansas State University. The orchestra performed there. Photo courtesy of Timur Ilyassov.
The U.S. Embassy provides books about American institutions, culture and personalities to partner libraries around Kazakhstan. They’re available to any library-goers. The Embassy’s partner in that effort in Astana is the National Academic Library.
The American Corner’s people-to-people program brings Kazakhs and Americans together for presentations and discussions.
Timur learned about American Corner as a university sophomore, and was hooked immediately.
“Every Thursday there were discussions with Americans,” he said. “There were diplomats, scientists, researchers, designers, photographers – very interesting and talented people.”African students at Kansas State University asked Timur to play his saxophone at their cultural-heritage celebration. Photo courtesy of Timur Ilyassov.
The experience led to his viewing Americans as “open, dedicated people who want to help others.”
Timur also took advantage of the American Corner’s English program to hone his language skills.
In fact, he began volunteering to lead a Beginning English class and, later, an Intermediate class as well.
Although Timur had a busy university life, he spent most of his weekends over the next two years leading American Corner English classes and going to EducationUSA events.
EducationUSA adviser Maira Tungatarova told Kazakh students interested in studying in the States that many American universities offered scholarships to foreign students – news that thrilled Timur, who had decided he wanted to further his studies in the U.S.
Maira gave those attending her sessions practical help in applying to U.S. universities, including how to write the important personal essays.
And she brought representatives of American universities to talk with her Kazakh charges. That’s how Timur met Kansas State University recruiter Caitlin Kelley.
Three months after he obtained his university diploma in June of 2014, he was on his way to K State as the second winner of a McKinney Scholarship. The one-year award is aimed at professional development rather than a degree.
Timur jumped into K-State life in August of 2014 with the verve he had displayed at the American Corner and EducationUSA programs.
He focused on political science in his academic year, which ended in May of this year. Recognizing how dynamic and articulate he was, Professor John Fliter told him: “I want you to join the Model United Nations Club – I think you’d be a great representative of Kansas State.”
That role took Timur to Model U.N. competitions in St. Louis and Chicago. Students from many universities took part in the events, learning diplomacy, international relations and the way the United Nations works.Timur and other Kansas State University students played jazz at the Ritz Charles Overland Park Hotel in Kansas City. Photo courtesy of Timur Ilyassov.
When Wayne Goins, the professor who heads K State’s jazz program, heard Timur play saxophone, he was so impressed that he arranged a music scholarship for him.
Timur not only played for K State’s Big Band Orchestra, but also with his friends Pedro Bondo of Angola and Malobe Sampson of New York at an African students cultural celebration. And he recorded a saxophone piece at the university
After Wynton Marsalis performed at Kansas State, Goins took Timur and another student backstage to meet the musical legend.
Timur was thrilled when Goins introduced him as “one of the best music students at K State.” Marsalis, who is known for his warmth, quickly agreed to let Timur take a photo with him.
Timur’s is hoping his American adventure will continue. He’s casting about for an internship in Washington and for a master’s program.
His K-State experience has heightened the warm feelings he developed toward Americans at the American Corner and EducationUSA programs.
“I really appreciate all the trust people have put in me, and the support they’ve given me,” he said.
Others’ support is only part of his success, however.
Additional ingredients include his work ethic, openness, enthusiasm and ability to overcome adversity.
He’s the kind of guy that all of us – Americans and non-Americans alike – want to see come out a winner.