April 17, 2012

Our Neighbors: Kazakhstan native uses library to learn about American history

LAUREL COUNTY, Ky. — Luba McDonald looks forward to book sales at the Laurel County Public Library so she can purchase many used books at a discounted rate in order to send home to her native country of Kazakhstan, one of the former Soviet Union Republics that borders Russia and China.

As a way to give back to the school in which she learned to speak English, McDonald sends about 60 books each time the library hosts a sale. It isn’t cheap, as shipping just one box of books can cost up to $100, but she knows the books are being put to a good use.  It will help the students of her village learn English, just as she did, in the classroom.

“I learned English from the age of 10,” she said.  “I took classes twice a week.”

In addition to regular classes in school, McDonald had one very special teacher, who also shared a love of the language, who helped her study after school and introduced her to many other books and short stories in English.

“My teacher of English, I am thankful to her,” McDonald said.  “English was harder to learn because it was not a spoken language there.”

The two main languages spoken in her country were Russian and Kazakh.  But because of her interest and aptitude for foreign languages, the whole world was opened to a girl from a village of 5,000.

And the fall of the Soviet Union opened new career opportunities for McDonald as the region’s worldview expanded.

“Our generation was lucky that way,” she said.  “It opened borders. When you grow up in a rural area, you are supposed to think of (a career in) agriculture, not foreign languages.”

McDonald graduated with her bachelor’s degree from the Institute of Foreign Languages in Almaty, Kazakhstan, in 1992, and joined Mercy Corps International, a non-profit organization based in the U.S. that works on issues of women’s empowerment, health care, and emergency relief in developing counties. McDonald served as an interpreter.  English and German were her specialties.

“Mercy Corps was a great opportunity for me to learn and expand my English,” she said.

She then received a graduate fellowship to study at the University of Toledo, Ohio, where she earned her master’s degree in public administration in 1997.  Returning to Kazakhstan, McDonald would go on to work for other international organizations, including the United Nations Development Program, working to develop her native country and relations between other world countries.

She met her husband, Rex, overseas and a friendship later turned into more.  The couple married in 2006 and moved to Laurel County to be closer to his family in Corbin.

For McDonald, the library has been a huge resource, enabling her to learn about the cultures and traditions of the United States as well as eastern Kentucky.

 “I spend a lot of time in the library in general,” she said. “I attend concerts, workshops.”

The libraries in Kazakhstan weren’t typically a place to gather.

“You’d come, pick up your books and leave,” she said.  “They didn’t have activities to come to like here.”

She is unsure if the difference is lack of funding or just a cultural difference.

 “Everyday I learn new things,” McDonald said.  “I learn a lot from the people I meet.”

One of the eras of American history McDonald finds most fascinating is the Civil War, and she is currently attending the monthly readings and discussions hosted by the library in conjunction to the 150th anniversary of the Civil War.  

“History was always interesting to me, not only Russian history, but history in general.”

McDonald earned her U.S. citizenship in February 2010.  She currently works as a consultant for international affairs in Washington, D.C., proving that you don’t have to live where you work in today’s time. She uses online video meetings, Skype and some travel to conduct her business from home.

“Even if I worked full time, I’d come to the library,” she said.

McDonald said that more than where you come from, it is interests that unites people.

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