Story by Aslan Sataybekov ’12
2014 FLEX Alumni Grants winner
Nazarbayev Debate Academy

9I am fortunate to have become a FLEX alumnus because, I believe, U.S. State Department and the FLEX Alumni program provide all possible opportunities to fulfill the potential of the alumni network. One of the examples is the FLEX Alumni Grants program offering alumni an opportunity to realize their project ideas and initiatives every year. As the winner of 2014 FLEX Alumni Grants program I would like to reflect on my impression and experience with implementing Nazarbayev Debate Academy project.

I have been always passionate about debates. For me, it’s an excellent form of civil engagement that develops critical thinking and promotes open-mindedness. I believe, such practice opens a dialogue on critical ideas and lets us explore new perspectives on our world. Moreover, it encourages objectivity as debaters often have to argue for something they don’t believe in personally. However, this might change their views and the game itself wonderfully demonstrates both sides of the coin. This is probably the most important aspect of the debates; they open our minds to new ideas and arguments, which is essential to spreading tolerance and intercultural understanding.  Aside from critical thinking, debates teach public speaking, which is a very important quality for future leaders. Nazarbayev Summer Debate Academy is the project we have been thinking through the whole year until the deadline of the FLEX Alumni Grants application. I was inspired to start the project after visiting the international debate academy in Slovenia. There, I was shown how we can spread awareness and nurture critical thinking among young people in a very engaging way such as a debate tournament. I am very grateful to my faculty advisor, Amanda Frank, who has helped me all the way through with organizing the project.

ITrPN25xNv4The application process for FLEX Alumni Grants was not complicated or difficult, but it needed some serious and advance preparations. My local Alumni Coordinator assisted me with throughout the application process.  Before filling the application we made sure that we have our university and all other organizations agree to write a letter of support.  Most importantly, we spent a substantial time thinking about how we can convey the importance of this project for us and the community as well. It is imperative to start as early as possible because some documents might take time to receive. For example, we had to wait  a week for our university’s letters of support, which was slightly unexpected. Writing the application, I made sure that all parts are proofread by my faculty advisor.

When writing the budget, we would always plan about additional funding sources in case if we received less of the grant money than we expected. In the application form there even is a question about cost-share. It is highly advised to have a cost share amount for your future project because it makes your application stand out. Also, having a good team who provided an in-kind supper saved us a lot of additional expenses. In-kind support is when someone volunteers to give you a service, supplies or free help.

The implementation of the project went well. We had both local and international debaters attending the academy. Also, we were fortunate to have world’s top qualified debate trainers provide skype sessions and share their knowledge. The project has established a consistent practice of organizing local city tournaments and engaging more and more young people to discussions with each subsequent month.  The debate club itself has grown massively and became a prime establisher of international standard of the debates in Astana’s debate community.

To all 2015-16 FLEX Alumni Grants applicants I would like to advise and suggest the following steps. Firstly, start planning and preparing your application in advance. Even though, the deadline is not soon, it is better to have a carefully though-out project so that the grant money is spent efficiently. Secondly, build a network. When organizing a project, make sure you have the right people to assist you and create a reliable team that will help you all the way through; there is no big project, if you work alone on it. Third, if in doubt, contact the Alumni Coordinators and they will be willing to answer all of your questions such as on what you can and can’t spend the grant money. Lastly, keep everything in strict order and don’t be afraid! We are all aware that the grant money is no small. However, there are no reasons to be afraid of being responsible for your own big project. Again, make sure you have trustable professionals around that will guide you in the right way of keeping everything on record. Winning a grant is not a small feat and requires you to be passionate about your idea. If you demonstrate that it is something you strongly believe in and ready to fulfill it, go for it.

I hope that this small achievement of mine would inspire other FLEX alumni to start their own big projects and wish everyone good luck with their applications!