Leah Cozzi with Mirgul, her counterpart. | Courtesy Leah Cozzi

Leah Cozzi returned in July from teaching English with the Peace Corps in Kyrgyzstan, a place most people have never heard of. During her two-year stint, she, and everyone she lived and worked with, learned something.

But how did a 22-year-old Forest Parker end up in a small town named Ming Bulak in a country the size of Nebraska, which is bordered by China and three equally unfamiliar countries called Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan?

Cozzi developed her love of languages from her parents while being homeschooled in Forest Park. After graduating from Oak Park and River Forest High School, she enrolled as an international affairs major at George Washington University. Because her focus was the Middle East, she tried to learn Arabic but realized that to learn it well, she had to be immersed in a situation where she was forced to use it every day.

She got a full dose by spending her junior year of college (2012-2013) in Egypt. 

“Arabic was very hard for me to learn,” Cozzi said. “It didn’t click until I went to Egypt which was absolutely what I needed. It was wonderful because when you’re in an immersion environment, you have no choice but to use the language you want to learn, and that was the incentive I needed. It made me want to live and work abroad. That’s also where I had my first experience of teaching English as a foreign language with a group of university students.”

On returning to George Washington in 2013, she applied to volunteer in the Peace Corps. She was assigned to Kyrgyzstan and, in April of 2015, left her home and family in the U.S. for what would be her new home and family in a central Asian country that few people even know how to spell.

The Peace Corps doesn’t just plop you down in your new situation. Her first three months were spent in intensive language study. 

“Speaking Kyrgyz,” she explained, “goes a long way toward integrating into the community. Being an American, they expect that you will not have made the effort to learn their language. Learning Kyrgyz shows that you made the effort and are invested in their culture. I would have ladies saying, ‘Oh, what a good girl. She speaks Kyrgyz.”

She stayed with a farming family, which raised beans and apples. 

“People’s livelihoods were often based on their crops,” Cozzi said, “so the autumn harvest is when people would get the bulk of their money to get them through the winter. You’ll often see a lot of weddings in September and October because that is when everyone is flush with cash. Last year, I didn’t see some of my students till November because they were helping their families with the potato harvest.”

Her host mom had been an English teacher, and she was working in a store. “I have three host siblings,” Cozzi said, two sisters and a brother, an indication of how close they became.

The home was comfortable although she had to use an outhouse. They did have running water and electricity though.

Cozzi did not give high marks to Kyrgyz cuisine, a bland combination of mutton, onions, yogurt and potatoes. In the summer, apples and apricots supplemented that diet and were a welcome change. A highlight was when sweet potatoes from China became available in the local store.

The Peace Corps sets up each volunteer with a “counterpart,” someone who acts as a professional partner. “My counterpart, Mirgul, is a young English teacher with whom I taught every day,” said Cozzi. 

“We wrote lessons and conducted trainings together. She is amazingly bright, and I think we learned a lot from each other. We were a good match because we were both introverted and self-conscious, so we could empathize with each other.”

In Kyrgyzstan, being fluent in Russian is considered a sign of sophistication and education. Having been part of the former Soviet Union, many Kyrgyz are oriented toward Moscow rather than America for higher education and business. The international language for Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan is not English but Russian. 

Nonetheless, she found a lot of interest among young people in going to America. The U.S. government has a program called FLEX through which students from Kyrgyzstan and neighboring countries can study in America for a year. The American embassy in Kyrgyzstan also runs a program in which English teachers can learn about methodology and get teaching practicum experience. 

Because Kyrgyzstan is a relatively new country, having gained its independence as recently as 1991, national identity is a huge issue. Cozzi said there is still some nostalgia for life as it was during the Soviet years. Her host grandmother, for example, proudly told her about one of her daughters who had earned a Ph.D. in literature from a university in Moscow.

But the people feel a strong urge to define themselves as Kyrgyz, and the language itself is a major source of pride among the people. There is a movement, she said, to have all business done and all documents written in Kyrgyz.

Cozzi took note of the cultural differences. Americans tend to compartmentalize different areas of their lives. They keep family separate from work and work from religion. In small town Kyrgyzstan, she said, they tend to overlap. 

She learned to “codeswitch” in professional situations because in that culture you’re not only evaluating people as a professional but also as a parent, a sibling or an in-law.

“It’s a good skill to have,” Cozzi said. “Codeswitching in your behavior and in the way you talk and problem-solve makes relationships stronger. It made my professional life better and more rewarding.”

The focus on relationships also affected the way she evaluated what she was doing as a Peace Corps volunteer. 

“Over time my definition of ‘results’ changed,” she said. “At first I focused more on my students’ and counterpart’s English proficiency. That was how I gauged my work and the results of my time. Soon I realized that the majority of my actual work took place outside of that context.”

Kyrgyz people are more social than Americans, she said, in terms of personal space. “Americans like their personal space and their personal time,” she said, “and that’s not always something you can retain. That can be a challenge, but learning to relinquish that brings you out of yourself and makes you more aware of others.”

In a less developed economy you have to let go of the need to control, which is so strong in America, she said. In Kyrgyzstan, it’s the weather that controls so much. It controls if your home is hot or cold, if you have mice in the house, and whether there is food on the shelves in the store. 

“We had a late frost last spring,” she said, “so all summer we had no apricots.” 

Cozzi learned the importance of both flexibility and good humor when things don’t go the way she planned them. She and her counterpart planned a great lesson, only to discover when they entered the classroom that the chalk was all gone. Making up a lesson on the fly, her counterpart came up with a game involving English. 

“Those are the lessons that stand out to me now,” Cozzi said, “because the vocabulary that we practiced during that game is what they remembered and the students asked to do the game again.”

Since there isn’t much demand for Kyrgyz speakers in the Chicago area, Cozzi is looking for a job teaching English as a second language with older students. She’s planning to get some work experience under her belt before making a decision about the next big move in her still young life.