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By: Laurel Bosshart
After spending four years earning his undergraduate degree at Carnegie Mellon, Michael Choe is ready for the next phase of his life–full-time employment. With graduation just a few weeks away, the business major attends the University's job fair. He walks from booth to booth in his good interview suit, talking to company representatives and gathering more and more information along the way. Nothing seems appealing, though. In fact, he realizes that he doesn't want to work for any of these companies.
That is, until he arrives at the final booth. It seems to him that it is the only booth that doesn't dwell on consumerism, that offers him a chance to travel outside of the country and experience other cultures, and that embraces the compassion instilled in him by his parents and his favorite high school teacher. Almost one year later, the business major begins a road less traveled, finding himself in the Republic of Kazakhstan as a volunteer with the Peace Corps.
After three months of language and cultural training by his host family, Choe, now semi-fluent in Russian, moves to Kapchagai, the city he will call home for the next two years.
He begins his days by teaching English and economic development classes to teenage students. After the first few classes, he realizes that teaching economics and free-market principles in a former communist country won't be easy. So he shifts gears and starts teaching the basics of marketing and business. "They are not used to thinking about things like we do in America. We're so used to being consumers, and they're not. But I know they want to be–especially the young kids," he says.
Additionally, Choe teaches computer programming classes and agrees to take charge of a local computer lab. He thinks, "Wow, that's impressive for a country that doesn't even have enough books for students–this is going to be great!" Then, on his first day, he opens the heavy iron door and sees 15 IBM PS/2 Model 30 computers, first introduced in 1987–all in pristine condition, complete with plastic covers on each keyboard.
"It was like stepping back into the '80s–instead of hard drives, there were cassette tapes. It was very Soviet in fashion–no frills." The lack of resources teaches Choe a lesson. "When you're desperate, you figure things out as you go. And you see things for how they are. Yeah, sure, it might be a 20-year-old computer, but you're trying to do what you can with it."
Ingenuity lessons are everywhere in Kazakhstan, even at bus stops. While Choe waits for a bus in 100-degree heat, with sweat pouring down his face, he eventually sees a bus in the distance. When the bus comes into focus, he notices something is wrong. The front windshield is missing; in its place is a huge piece of cardboard with a 4-inch-high, foot-long slit in the middle that allows the driver to see if he crouches just right. "It's a different kind of ingenuity than the States. And that's the cool part–for me, at least," he says. Choe chooses to wait for a bus with a windshield.(Continued …)