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A Santa Marian travels to Kazakhstan to spend time with some of its student leaders



Santa Maria businesswoman Lawnae Hunter (center, holding certificate) recently traveled to Kazakhstan to speak about overcoming one's fears in the professional world with students from the Kazakhstan-American Free University.

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Santa Maria businesswoman Lawnae Hunter's journey to the Kazakh-American Free University (KAFU) in Ust-Kamenogorsk, Kazakhstan, started over lunch with friends.

While eating and chatting, Marshall Christensen—who happens to be KAFU's provost—suggested that Hunter visit the school to speak about her experiences as a woman in the business world.

"I said, sarcastically, something like, 'oh, I bet you get a lot of women in your classes,'" Hunter recalled in an interview with the Sun. "And he said, 'actually, there are more women than men in our classes.'

"I assumed, wrongfully so, in these former Soviet countries that women were discriminated against," she said.

So in late September, Hunter boarded a plan to Kazakhstan to attend the university's international leadership conference. Once there, she spoke to the students about the importance of servant-based leadership and how to overcome one's fears to succeed in business. The talk was given in English and translated into Russian, one of the country's primary languages.

Hunter said she was delighted and amazed by the people she interacted with, and she enjoyed learning about everything the university has to offer its community.

"They're such great hosts. They're so gracious and charming, and so welcoming," she said, recalling her time at the university and at several community dinners and events. "Who'd have thought, as a young girl of the 1950s and '60s, that I would grow up to sit and talk with a bunch of Russian women?"

Kazakhstan was the last of the Soviet republics to declare independence following the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991. For at least a year after that, the country didn't have any currency because the ruble was considered worthless. The state owned all of the housing and food was scarce, especially in urban cities.

"I had one man tell me the only reason he survived was because his family would bring him food from their farm," Hunter said. "He said his greatest friends came from [that time in his life]."

For the last 20-plus years, the young country's residents have been working to build lives for themselves. KAFU students are at the forefront of that movement.

"Until about 20 years ago, our country and our region, in particular, had been totally closed to the outside world. Then suddenly it was flooded with all kinds of information and ideas," KAFU representative Anya Kabardina Volf said in an e-mail to the Sun. "So the real need arose to educate and prepare our young generation to face this global highly competitive world."

The school now has a volunteer leadership program that connects students with Americans who are experienced leaders in the business sector and other areas. In the first year of the program, the students communicate with their American mentors via Skype and e-mail, and then they travel to various businesses in the Pacific Northwest to see those principles in action.

In the second year, they're asked to create their own projects to make a difference in their community back home.

"[That part of the program] was a shock," provost Christensen said. "The students said, 'How can we do that? We have no power, no position, no influence. We can't do that."

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Christensen said the program draws heavily from the principles of Co-Serve International and the Greenleaf Center for Servant Leadership, which highlight the benefits of "leading from behind" and the empowerment of all workers.

The first group of students struggled with the concept for a couple of months, but ended up affecting change in Ust-Kamenogorsk's transit system. For years, the buses in the city weren't affordable for students. The leadership group was able to get a 30 percent discount for those attending KAFU.

"That was the first time in the country that anything like that had happened," Christensen said. "It was a transformational moment, with the real message being that they could make a difference."

The school is now considering welcoming American students to its campus to further its goal of becoming more involved in the international community.

"Our best hope is for our country to continue to develop as a free democratic country in a region where human freedoms and rights, [and] democracy and equal opportunities have not been a common practice," Volf said. "We hope for Kazakhstan to develop into more than a natural resource base for its neighbors, but an independent player and an exporter of unique products and services.

"That's why Kazakhstan needs to develop its infrastructure, intellectual human capital, expertise base, and science. Universities play a major role in this process," she said.

Contact Managing Editor Amy Asman at

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