Alice Gast
Photo credit: Thomas Angus

Science and Diplomacy through International Students and Alumni

#SciDipTurns10 Kazakhstan United Kingdom United States Science Envoys Europe South and Central Asia

In the decade since the first issue of Science & Diplomacy, approximately 50 million students have studied abroad. They work with people from different cultures, see the world through a different lens, and learn to communicate more effectively. Some stay abroad, working, starting companies, and building bridges to their countries of origin; others return home or go to a third country with their new global network, making business deals and defining policy. These are 50 million sources of diplomacy for the world.

A striking example is in Kazakhstan, the setting for my observations as a 2011 US Science Envoy, chronicled in “From Cold War to Warm Relations.”1 Relations with Kazakhstan have continued to warm2 and their Bolashak Scholars are a model of student-diplomats.

Since the Bolashak Scholars program was created by President Nursultan Nazarbayev in 1993, over 10,000 Kazakh students3 have studied abroad, in 630 institutions in 33 countries. While abroad, Bolashak Scholars serve as diplomats representing Kazakhstan, teaching others about its culture and people.4 They are then required to return to Kazakhstan for at least five years to work. Many of them become entrepreneurs. Others become leaders in business and government, including, for instance, Sayasat Nurbek, recently appointed Minister of Science and Higher Education, who was a Bolashak Scholar at Marshalltown College in Iowa.

Whether they ultimately stay in Kazakhstan or not, former Bolashak Scholars5 can be a diplomatic resource. Alumni from abroad who have relationships with their former classmates and teachers and have an affinity for our culture and people are extremely valuable to our universities, communities, and countries. Successful international alumni start companies, build international collaborations, and support universities and charities with their philanthropy. We see this worldliness among international alumni where collaborative opportunities are seized based on the bond of a shared alma mater.

Many world leaders’ weltanschauung (or: worldviews) can be traced to their experiences studying abroad. Singapore’s past president and Deputy Prime Minister Tony Tan’s study at MIT and the University of Adelaide contributed to his leadership promoting international collaborations and the founding of Singapore Management University. Mary Robinson credits her experience studying law at Harvard in 1967 as the basis for her courage to stand for Parliament at age 25 and ultimately to serve as President of Ireland.6

The US and UK’s privileged position as recipients of international talent faces growing competition. The huge worldwide increase in international students, from 2000 to 2020, came with a fall in market share for the US and UK from 42% to 30%. Meanwhile the fraction of such students studying in Russia and China rose from close to zero to 15%.7 Canada and Australia also saw rapid gains in international students over the past few years.8

While still providing the best education in the world, anti-immigration rhetoric in the United States and United Kingdom may have damaged our appeal. We have friends around the world, and especially in Kazakhstan, thanks to the Bolashak Scholars who studied here; if we are not careful, the next generation of international students may go elsewhere.


  1. Alice P. Gast, “From Cold War to Warm Relations,” Science & Diplomacy, March 9, 2012,
  2. John Ordway, “Thirty years of Kazakhstan: A Prelude to an Epilogue,” EurasiaNet, March 11, 2022,
  3. Dina Azhgaliyeva et al., “The Impact of Government-Sponsored Education Abroad on Entrepreneurship: Case Study Bolashak scholarship,” University of Reading, 2017,
  4. Douglas W. Blum, “Social Process of Globalization: Return Migration and Cultural Change in Kazakhstan," (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2016).
  5. Baurzhan Bokayev, “Preventing Brain Drain: Kazakhstan’s Presidential ‘Bolashak’ Scholarship and Government Regulations of Intellectual Migration,” Kaunas University of Technology, October 15, 2020,
  6. Interview with Mary Robinson by Erick Trickey, “Mary Robinson, LL.M. ’68,” Harvard Law Bulletin, winter 2019,
  7. Leah Mason, “International Student Mobility Flows and COVID-19 Realities,” Institute of International Education, August 2021,
  8. “A Quick Look at Global Mobility Trends,” Project Atlas, 2020,
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