Dilyara Kenzhegaliyeva

By Liz Segal
Dilyara Kenzhegaliyeva. Photo by Roger SniderDilyara Kenzhegaliyeva. Photo by Roger Snider

With her pretty, moon-shaped face and broad smile, Dilyara Kenzhegaliyeva is a walking advertisement for her native Kazakhstan. She speaks glowingly of her hometown, Karaganda, “a not-so-big town near the country’s capital, which is why it’s beautiful and famous.” Well, relatively famous in Central Asia and Eastern Europe.

Kenzhegaliyeva is one of 10 Kazakhs attending the Language Academy this year. Since 1993, the country has sent hundreds of students abroad on Bolashak (“future”) Presidential Scholarships. Kenzhegaliyeva snagged this scholarship right out of high school – one of only two women to do so – thanks to her strong performance in math, physics and chemistry. She is on track to study engineering and hopes to be admitted to the USC Viterbi School of Engineering after sitting for her TOEFL and SAT exams.

Though she dresses as fashionably as any native Southern Californian on a shopping spree at the Beverly Center, Kenzhegaliyeva will return to the Kazakh steppes when her education is complete. There, she will don a greasy hard hat, gloves and apron to work the oil rigs of her country’s booming state-owned petroleum industry. Under the terms of her scholarship, she will be obliged to do so for five years. Not many women do this kind of work in her homeland. “Usually they marry first, then have children, then maybe a job,” Kenzhegaliyeva says.

Increasingly, Kenzhegaliyeva looks to American women as her role models. She says she is impressed by what she has seen, in terms of their grit and professional know-how. Such inspiration has come in handy at times. “Taking grueling exams, coming to a new country, missing my home – it’s been a lot,” she admits. “But still, I can do this!”

When asked what professional qualities she hopes to bring home from the United States, she says: “I want my co-workers to think I’m tolerant, honest and trustworthy. I don’t want them to lie to me, so I can’t lie to them.”

While she’s here, Kenzhegaliyeva wants to see many of the sites both on and off the usual tourist map. She has already walked the streets of Hollywood – and found them disappointing. “Everything was so dirty,” she complains. Still on her to-do list are New York City and the Grand Canyon. Her No. 1 destination, though, is definitely off the beaten track: Kenzhegaliyeva hopes to tour one of the many oil refineries that dot Southern California’s coastline.