From Colorado To Kazakhstan: Jonathan Jay On The Princeton In Asia Program

Jun 06, 2013
Princeton in Asia fellow Jon Jay at the Summit of Amangeldy Peak (4000m) near Almaty, Kazakhstan (October 27, 2012)

The name of the Princeton in Asia (PiA) program can be a little deceiving because this fellowship is not just for Princeton graduates – this incredible program offers 150 one-year fellowships annually to recent graduates from any undergraduate institution. Founded by students in 1898 (that’s not a typo!), PiA aims to foster cross-cultural understanding by offering American graduates service-oriented positions throughout Central and West Asia in the fields of education, journalism, international development, business and English teaching. Through extended exposure to Asian workplaces and cultures, fellows develop a life-long appreciation for that region of the world.

PiA states they are looking for candidates who are open-minded, self-motivated, enthusiastic and hardworking, so it’s no surprise Jonathan Jay was chosen to be a 2012 Princeton in Asia fellow in Almaty, Kazakhstan. An avid skier with an academic background in international development, Jonathan impressed the PiA selection committee with his passion, adaptability and sense of adventure. We asked Jonathan to tell us more about his experience and his tips for the competitive application process.

1. What inspired you to apply for the Princeton in Asia fellowship?

I finished my graduate degree in Global Economics and International Development at the University of Denver’s (DU) Josef Korbel School of International Studies in 2011, and took a job as a substitute teacher in my hometown in Western Colorado since the hours were compatible with the ski competitions I was doing that time. As a substitute teacher and, later in the year, a teaching assistant to special needs students at the high school level, I discovered I really enjoyed teaching but I still wanted to live abroad and see a lot of the world. I was looking at a teaching program in Japan when a good friend passed along a link to the Princeton in Asia (PiA) program. I was immediately impressed with the program’s emphasis on service-based learning and the opportunity to enact real change without dealing with a highly structured or restrictive program. It was also the only program I found that had a few Central Asia posts, so I was inspired to apply.

Even though my studies at DU focused on the Xinjiang Province in Northwestern China and Kyrgyzstan, PiA’s post at KIMEP University in Almaty, Kazakhstan was right in between the two, and the position was at a business and economics university, which was in line with my research interests. Also, Almaty is right on the doorstep of the beautiful Tien Shan mountains, so I could teach and work in a place where I could also pursue my passion for skiing, mountaineering, and climbing. The location seemed like a perfect fit, and through the interview process, I learned the program was a perfect fit for my lifestyle as well. PiA does not have rigid regulations or strict protocol in terms of what a fellow is required to do. Instead, they emphasize finding the right person for the job, and then they step back and allow that person the latitude to make the most of the opportunity. I could not be happier with this fellowship overall, and that was a major factor in my choice to renew it for a second year. It has also put me on the path of continuing in academia since my role here allows for quite a bit of individual research. Over the next few years, I plan continue my research and eventually apply for a PhD program.

2. What has been the most “eye-opening” experience during your fellowship?

I did not have very much knowledge about Kazakhstan until I was in the application process with PiA, so I did not know that the economies in Almaty and Astana would be so much more developed than those in Bishkek in Kyrgyzstan or Urumqi in China, which I studied about in University. When I told friends and family I was moving to Kazakhstan, everyone assumed I was moving to the country portrayed in in the movie “Borat” – living in a hut and paying for everything with goats. Also, no one could point it out on the map, and quite a few people wondered if it would be safe since it shares the same last syllable as Afghanistan. But the cities of Kazakhstan, in particular Almaty and Astana, are developing at a very fast rate, and there are all sorts of shiny new skyscrapers, flashy European cars, and plenty of overpriced, fancy restaurants. Along with these things, status symbols are highly valued, so people here extravagantly flaunt their wealth. At the same time, however, a one hour drive in any direction from Almaty is like stepping back in time. There are still animal markets, old bazaars, decrepit Ladas (old Russian cars), and very visible poverty in almost every village not affected by the natural resource wealth. With my background in Global Economics and International Development, this incredible income disparity and general lack of the middle class has been the most eye-opening thing to me, while the wealth and status symbols of the city where I live have been the most surprising thing for the people I keep in touch with in the U.S. and Europe.

3. What tips would you give others applying to Princeton in Asia?

First of all, Princeton in Asia is a pretty large program, with close to 180 posts from Almaty to Manila. If you have the slightest interest in teaching abroad or working in an entry-level job with a non-governmental organization abroad, it is worth looking into. Also, there is a possibility to switch posts for a second year, which is good if you are looking for a change of pace but not interested in leaving Asia. Finally, they are always adding new posts, so what is on the website now might not be the only options available, so keep an open mind about where you might want to go. Do not fret about the video part of the application, just be yourself and do what feels comfortable. This advice really applies for the interview as well. The connection with Princeton University is a little intimidating to some, but the thing that stood out to me was that the directors value candidates with personality and the ability to adjust, moreso than a strong academic background. So, if you happen to show up six hours late to your interview in Los Angeles because of a flight delay, in a suit but carrying a grungy overstuffed backpack and ski boots because you are heading directly to a ski trip, and can still keep your cool for the interview, there is a good chance you will end up somewhere in Asia. At least that’s how it worked out for me.

The deadline to apply to Princeton in Asia is November 16, 2013.

Jonathan Jay graduated from the University of Denver’s Josef Korbel School of International Studies’ BA/MA program in 2011 as a Boettcher Scholar. He studied abroad as a Cherrington Global Scholar in Karlstad University in Karlstad, Sweden in 2008, and is currently a Princeton in Asia Fellow in Almaty, Kazakhstan, where he teaches Academic Foundation Courses at KIMEP University. A former President of the DU Alpine Club, Jon grew up skiing, hiking and mountain biking in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado, and competed on the Freeskiing World Tour while in graduate school. His current passion is ski mountaineering, and there is certainly no shortage of big peaks and first descents in the Tien Shan Mountains just south of Almaty. He plans to pursue a PhD in International Affairs in the future. You can read his travel blog at:

© Victoria Johnson 2013, all rights reserved.