MARQUETTE - The country in which Zhanygul Kaparova grew up is further from the ocean than any nation in the world. In the course of her life, the 17-year-old native of Kyrgyzstan has rarely seen a beach. So when she first arrived in Marquette last month following a five-day trans-Atlantic journey, she had but one thought.
"I thought, 'When I go back home, I will miss this lake,'" she said of Lake Superior. "It's so beautiful here."
Kaparova is spending one academic year attending Marquette Senior High School as part of a U.S. Department of State offering, the Future Leaders Exchange Program. Students in the program are expected to share their culture with Americans, generate enduring ties in the U.S., gain a working knowledge of U.S. culture and share that knowledge upon returning home.
Home, for Kaparova, is Kok-Jangak, a city of slightly more than 10,000 located in central-western Kyrgyzstan. Like in many nations, Kyrgyz children mature in a culture dotted with American music and movies. Even in Kok-Jangak.
"We do like America," she said. "Everybody wants to come see what it's like."
To a degree, then, Kaparova knew what to expect when she arrived, and has often had little trouble fitting in.
Occasionally, though, it has proven a bit difficult to share her culture with fellow students. When she tells people she is from Kyrgyzstan, a mountainous central Asian nation bordering China's most northwestern and rugged region, students often assume she is from a country similar to Afghanistan or Pakistan.
More than two months into the experience, Kaparova is enjoying the stay with her host parents, Marquette residents Harvey and Patty Gagnon. After retirement, the couple joined the Peace Corps and ended up staying with Kaparova's family in Kyrgyzstan. They have remained in touch ever since.
Though her circumstances are a bit unusual, MSHS guidance counselor Dan Bonsall is not surprised Kaparova has enjoyed her time in Marquette.
"The kind of kid who would want to leave home and go do that for a year is probably a unique, special kind of kid," he said. "The kid that would think to do that and volunteer to do it is a kid who wants those types of experiences."
This semester, there are five exchange students at MSHS. Bonsall said exchange students often say the education system - especially the teacher-student dynamic is very different in America. Teachers are often more relaxed, open and conversational with students in U.S. classrooms.
In Kyrgyzstan, Kaparova said, students must study in-depth accounts of world history. In fact, she has been aware of most of the topics that have emerged in her U.S. history class at MSHS.
Her interest in world history and world politics, though, may very well be rooted in the fact that her homeland is still attempting to find its true place on the global stage.
Kyrgyzstan, once a part of the USSR, declared its independence just 20 years ago. Though that development took place before Kaparova was even born, she has lived through politically unsure times, as well.
Just last year, a string of violent protests rocked the small nation. But those political outbursts, she said, didn't change daily life.
"The people are always positive," she said. "Life never changes. Even if we have political issues, life never changes."
Still, she spent that time doing something far different than would be expected from an American child. While the protests were going on, Kaparova and her friends remained in their boarding school, where they focused on their education, and the future.
"I spent a lot of my time studying and a lot of my friends did the same, too. We tried to develop more morally," she said. "We'd read books and think about the future. Last year we had some political issues and we mostly talked about how to develop our country and how to make it better. It's a small country. The population is very small. We just need to make progress."
Since arriving in Marquette, she has become a more stereotypically Western student. In the last few weeks, she has tried bowling and tubing, and has learned to ride a bike. As part of the FLEX program, she has volunteered at various community organizations and said she has learned the most about America from those experiences.
Though she will be sad to leave the lake, Kaparova is happy she is getting the chance to experience Marquette, a town full of people she hopes to both learn from and to inform.
"I think Marquette is a very good place for an exchange student," she said. "It's not a big city and nobody is in a rush here."
Kyle Whitney can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 250. His email address is kwhitney@miningjournal. net.