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Turkmenistan Opens its Doors to UK Fulbrighter, Alan DeYoung

Monday, March 13, 2017

Turkmenistan, which used to be part of the Soviet Union, has been mostly closed to visitors for the past thirty years. This year, University of Kentucky’s emeritus professor of sociology and educational policy studies was given the opportunity to work there as a Fulbright Scholar. Alan DeYoung, the first Fulbrighter to enter the country in almost a decade, brought with him his eagerness to learn more about human development strategies in Turkmenistan and to help create a new sociology program.

“Turkmenistan was closed because the country had undergone a national identity-building process by turning inwards to their pre-Soviet traditions rather than outward toward globalization,” DeYoung said. “They have oil and gas, so they felt they didn’t need to look elsewhere for new ideas or resources. However, the incoming president (in power now for almost 10 years) recently decided the country needed more international influence and ideas. Yet they remain wary of foreigners, particularly Americans.”

As a part of this attempt to develop the country and open it to global ideas, the International University of Humanities and Development (IUHD) was established in Ashgabat, Turkmenistan almost three years ago. While in Turkmenistan, DeYoung had the opportunity to work with various local university staff on the academic development of the university with particular focus upon sociology and the other social and humanitarian “sciences.”

“Most of the professors at IUHD are really young, so it was very different from being at UK, where the faculty tends to be older,” DeYoung said. “The reason for the younger faculty at IUHD is because there have been few Turkmenistan scholars trained abroad - particularly in English – who have seen or worked in any Western-style universities. So IUHD is starting a Western-oriented university almost from scratch, where the faculty themselves are only recently trained. Most teachers there still have only an undergraduate degree or a Masters.”

Thus, DeYoung found IUHD students to be delighted in having an older professor with more experience to teach them. “My favorite thing was working with my students, who were 19 and 20 year olds that were very receptive to foreigners and international ideas,” DeYoung recalled. He explained that these students had gone through an intense one-year preparation to have a good grasp of the English language, given that all classes at IUHD are taught in English instead of the native Turkmen.

DeYoung has been on Fulbright programs in four different occasions, including grants to Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan, and one previous visit to Turkmenistan. When asked if he would participate in a Fulbright program again, there was no hesitation in his answer. “It’s a great program, I’ve been four times and every one of them has been very rewarding,” DeYoung assured.

He encouraged both faculty and students to participate in a Fulbright program, which he said are meant for “people that want to be exposed to new experiences and perspectives.” Now back in Kentucky, after residing for several months in a hotel in Ashgabat, DeYoung said he is glad to be home, and able to do his own cooking and to drive his own car. But he is hoping to stay in touch with his students in Turkmenistan and in this way, generate more learning and networking opportunities. Such activities are somewhat constrained however, since social media outlets are banned in Turkmenistan, and most other communications efforts are censored.

The Fulbright program grants scholars and students the opportunity to teach, study and learn in over 140 countries worldwide. The program sends over 800 U.S. faculty and professionals abroad annually. To learn more about the Fulbright program and other Education Abroad opportunities, visit http://www.uky.edu/international/educationabroad or contact associate provost for internationalization, Sue Roberts at sue.roberts@uky.edu.