Benjamin Taylor went to Kazakhstan to be a teacher. But while educating the local populous in English, he has become much more than just an instructor. Cultural ambassador, semi-celebrity, family man, are roles he has picked up during his time in Central Asia, and he has loved every minute of it all.
Taylor, who graduated from O’Fallon Township High School in 2003, has thrived in the U.S. State Department Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs’ English Language Fellows program.
“My job as a Fellow, as when I was a volunteer, is to reach out to under-served communities and make English language learning accessible and available for as many people as possible,” Taylor said.
Home has taken on a special meaning, too, as he makes his way in the world. The former O’Fallon resident said his overseas adventures would not be possible were it not for his Midwest upbringing and school lessons here.
“I saw my teachers as heroes. I loved reading, too, and wanted to see the world. I'd be lying if I said this all happened according to some sort of plan, though,” he said.
“One job opens up doors to another, and I ask myself: 'Is this giving me the adventure I want? Will I have the money I need to survive without depending on others? Will I be able to help people with this job, and will they be happy to have me?' If I can answer all or most of these questions with a 'yes,' then I go for it.”
Kazakhstan, a former Soviet republic, is in Central Asia. It is bound by the Caspian Sea to the west and the Altai Mountains, China and Russian borders to the east.
As a Fellow, Taylor spent a year at the Eurasian National University in Kazakhstan’s capital city of Astana, then moved on to Karaganda State Technical University in 2017. He works in close cooperation with the U.S. embassy and his host institution to improve the locals' grasp of English.
The goal is to foster a better understanding of the United States through cross-cultural partnerships. Fellows are placed for a 10-month assignment.
The language and cultural barriers are a challenge, he said, as it’s “far from home and everything familiar.”
Yet he tackles the difficulties with enthusiasm.
“Bridging the gaps between American culture and those I’m interacting with here and around the world has been one of my greatest joys,” he said. “Every student is different, and each day unlike the one before. Those differences compel me to focus on becoming my best self in and outside of the classroom.”
One of his ventures is broadcasting.
He has been successful in this role, garnering much recognition as a host of Kazakh broadcaster Novoe TV’s weekly English-language education show, “Hello, Little Bird!”
It airs for an hour every Friday on radio and TV. The show can be streamed on YouTube, and they recently added a supplemental TV component on weekends. He partnered with a Russian-language co-host, Valentina, and two students, Eva and Alena, who welcome online callers, to produce this fun and engaging broadcast focused on practical English.
This winter, Taylor and his team were nominated for an award in TV excellence by a Kazakh national media showcase.
Winning didn’t matter, he said, because the nomination was quite an achievement.
“The fact that our show was recognized on a national level in Kazakhstan is a big win for Novoe TV and Zhana FM, for the English language in Kazakhstan, and for the visibility of American people and culture in Kazakhstan,” he said.
Besides TV and the university, he teaches regular American English idiom sessions at the American Corner, (a cultural space in Karaganda, and academic writing to gifted high school students who are part of a local EducationUSA group.
“These sessions are always a highlight of my week!” he said.
David Woods, who is based at Georgetown University, is outreach coordinator for this government English Language Program. He is thrilled with Taylor’s accomplishments.
"We sent Ben to Kazakhstan to spread English. Ben got there and used TV, radio, and YouTube to spread English much farther than that. What more could we ask for?" he said.
Woods said Ben represented everything English Language Programs look for in a Fellow.
“He's an innovator, a creative problem solver, and an adventurer. But most of all, he's a super-dedicated teacher who really cares about bringing people together through language education," Woods said.
Cold weather, warm people
Taylor has fallen in love with Kazakhstan, despite the harsh winters (as in -50 degrees), because of the people and his work.
“I absolutely love Kazakhstan! The friendliness and warmth of people I meet makes everything worth it,” he said. “I also get to travel and teach. I was invited to a science conference in Turkestan last year. I have had amazing opportunities to do a wide range of things in Kazakhstan, unrelated to my work as a Fellow.”
He has watched traditional hunters, who use trained eagles to catch their food, in Borovoe.
He loves the food, looking for new cheap cafes on side streets in his host city, Karaganda.
“My standard order is a cup of borscht with some sour cream, a few slices of black bread, and a milky tea. I have a few favorite places and love taking my friends to those place,” he said. “I am often busy with work, but I live a safe, happy, quiet life most of the time, though the TV job has given me more visibility. I have to stop for selfies with fans every now and then.”
A wanting to wander vs. that tug of home
After his Fellow program ends this year, he hopes to pursue English-language video and radio work full-time there. But his plans are to return home after his third year, along with his girlfriend and her young son.
“I'm seriously considering a future career as a TV language educator, something I'd never have dreamt of before, and the possibility of working in international education at university levels in the future is far greater than it was even a few years ago. I haven't decided what I want to do next yet, and I hope my mind keeps changing. I don't ever want to stop dreaming,” he said.
Besides professional success, he has personal reasons to be overjoyed.
“The best thing about Kazakhstan, and the reason I'll be staying for a third year, has been the opportunity to begin developing my own future family here,” he said.
His girlfriend, Mira, is a doctor and a young mother. Her son, Asi, is almost 3 years old.
“Aside from this new family, my friends, colleagues and students here are some of the most supportive and encouraging people I've ever met,” he said.
The country has a well-deserved reputation for hospitality toward foreigners, he said.
Yet, that tug of home is there.
His parents, Fred and Paula Taylor, gave him roots and wings, as the saying goes. They moved to O’Fallon from Chillicothe, Ohio, when Ben was 7.
His mother retired from the O’Fallon Public Library last year. His younger brother, Alex, and his grandmother, Helen Elchert, also live in O’Fallon.
He fondly recalled his O’Fallon upbringing. He grew up near Southview Plaza.
“I consider O’Fallon my home. My brother and I used to love going to Southview Plaza, either to Ice Cream Haven or, if we had more money, to Medieval Starship to buy cards. I have fond memories of walking with friends to the Pizza Hut downtown or Casa Azteca as well, and I still make a visit to Casa Azteca every time I'm home,” he said.
He credited with his outstanding teachers as shaping his career path.
“My education in O'Fallon was always top-notch, and I can identify teachers from every stage of my upbringing who are responsible for my current success: Ms. Rich at LaVerna Evans, Mr. Fulton at Marie Schaefer (now Fulton Jr. High), and Ms. Malacarne, Mr. Bickel and Mr. Curry at O'Fallon Township High School stand out, but the list goes beyond that. These were people that gave me an early love of school and the hope that one day I could be a teacher as well,” he said.
In high school, Ben was active in band – playing trombone in the marching band, violin in the orchestra and bass in the jazz band. He belonged to the Chess Club, Drama Club and was an ally as a charter member of the OTHS Gay-Straight Alliance.
Those were the roots. Now on to the wings.
“Another thing I liked about growing up in O'Fallon was the proximity to an Air Force base. This was great because while I had some friends who spent their lives in O’Fallon, I also had a lot of friends who'd come to O'Fallon for several years before moving elsewhere,” he said. “This was an early introduction for me to the idea of mobility — a concept I clearly still hold dearly. It has resulted in a situation in which I have friends all over the country and also the world.”
Finding his calling
Taylor studied English at Knox College in Galesburg, earning a bachelor’s degree in 2007, and received a master’s degree from Humboldt State University in teaching English as a second/foreign language in Arcata, California, in 2015.
In between undergraduate and graduate degrees, he served as both an Americorps and Peace Corps volunteer.
“AmeriCorps came at a pivotal point in my life and really is a turning point that's brought me to where I am today. I'd been living in Iowa City in 2009 or so, having just gotten back from a year of teaching abroad in Korea with my college girlfriend, after graduating from Knox, and things weren't good. I was serving coffee, we'd broken up, and I felt exhausted and like I was wasting my life,” he said.
Enter Mom. She showed him an ad for Belleville AmeriCorps. He started working at Jefferson Elementary School as a reading mentor.
“Over the next two years, I developed as a team player, as an occasional leader, and as a lover of both community service and teaching. The Peace Corps, and this Fellowship would not have been possible without my two years in Belleville as a starting point. I still recommend AmeriCorps service to anyone looking for a transformational experience and a chance to give back to the community that's raised them.”
He joined the Peace Corps through a now-defunct program called Master’s International, which combined education with field research as part of his graduate degree experience. He spent two years in the Federated States of Micronesia in 2012-2014, both as an English language educator and community developer on the island of Pohnpei.
School did guide his career decisions, he said, but he couldn’t have predicted the opportunities that have come his way.
This assignment has been particularly gratifying, he said.
“This program is often a great launchpad for future careers in international diplomacy and second-language education,” he said.
He plans on returning home for a short time this summer.
“I fully plan on moving back to the U.S. with Mira and her son the year after that. I'm really looking forward to taking Asi to the lunch buffet at Casa Azteca for the first time,” he said.
Q: Do you have words to live by?
We can't control everything, but we can control our reactions to the madness around us. I keep this in mind when I get up, smile at others, and am usually pleasantly rewarded with smiles and positivity in return. Other than that, I'd say cherish big and small successes, give yourself grace when things don't work out, don't take yourself too seriously, and always order dessert.
Q: Whom do you most admire?
A: Volunteers, custodians, wait staff, post office workers, and all the other people in our lives that make our world work with barely a thank-you: you are deserving of praise. If nobody's said it to you today, thanks for what you do.
On a personal level, I'll say that I wouldn't be living the life I am now without the continued love and guidance of my parents, who support me from O'Fallon even when I live in far-away Kazakhstan.
Q: If you could spend time with a famous person, past or present, whom would it be?
A: I would love to go for a walk with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. I don't have any agenda for what we'd talk about, but I'd like to think I'd be listening more than talking. He's a long-time hero of mine.
Q: What is the last book that you read?
A: I think the last thing I read completely was "The Final Dossier" by Mark Frost. I'm a huge fan of "Twin Peaks," and this book was maybe the last canonical work we'll get in the series. A lot of fun surprises in there, and a quick read.
Q: What do you do for fun and relaxation?
A: I'm an English teacher in northern Kazakhstan, so some of my day-to-day habits might be different from what I'd have done in O'Fallon. I'll say that walking through sleepy, snowy parks before or after work is a favorite activity, though. I also love looking for new cafes on side streets and in alleyways in my host city of Karaganda. I also like playing chess in free time or socializing with friends.
Q: What is the usual state of your desktop?
A: I'm a very messy person by nature (often distracted and multitasking with varying degrees of success), so my desktop tends to be cluttered. I'm happy to say as I've moved into my 30s, though, that I'm getting better at keeping my things organized and clean. I have found that I feel better about my day and my general being when everything is clean and sorted, so I take some time to do this in the mornings while my coffee is brewing. There’s room for improvement, though.
Q: What did you want to do career wise when you were growing up?
A: I don't know if I had anything concrete in mind, but I wanted to help people, and I always liked being in classes. I have absolutely no regrets about the trajectory of my life. Volunteering and teaching domestically and abroad has been a dream come true for me.
Q: What do you think is your most outstanding characteristic?
A: I am often told that I have a gift for making people comfortable. Let's say it's that. I am also good at getting along with people, a quality that I am increasingly more grateful for the older I get.
Q: What irritates you most?
A: People who expect the world to be delivered to them, or who feel entitled because of their race, gender, or some other social indicator, do a disservice to themselves as much as to the community around them. I have to check this in myself often, and the pursuit of being mindful of my own privilege informs my teaching and my life generally. I also have a difficult time listening to people who want to better their lives but refuse to take any discernible steps towards actualizing positive change.
Q: What type of music do you listen to?
A: Most of my friends would tell you I listen to hip hop and metal music, and they'd be right. I used to enjoy rapping myself, and even since then few things can energize me like rap. As a high school student, I was very into hard rock and have returned to metal in the last several years, though my tastes in this genre have gotten more extreme than they were when I was younger.
What a lot of people might not know is that I love jazz, too. I saw Kamasi Washington play a roughly 3-hour set in Chicago shortly before coming to Kazakhstan the first time (in 2016) and the experience really prepared me mentally for being away from live music for such an extended time.
As a final note, live music is huge for me. Last summer, during my month home I was blessed with the opportunity to see Ozzy Osbourne at Moonstock, a festival celebrating the solar eclipse, in southern Illinois. Absolutely incredible experience!
Q: What do you like most about your job?
A: I get to talk with interesting English language learners every day and make a positive impact on their lives and well-being. What could possibly be better than that? This year, my second in Kazakhstan, has been particularly rewarding in this regard because I'm working with technical students now. It is indescribably cool to be able to facilitate an English discussion between engineers, architects and innovators of all stripes, every one of whom is doing research beyond anything I've ever dreamed of.
Q: If you were independently wealthy, what would you be doing?
A: I think I'd be traveling and teaching, but I'd be less worried about finding jobs that pay so I'd be able to go wherever I could find joy. If I had money I'd love to do this with my girlfriend, Mira, a Kazakhstani local, and her son, and hopefully we'd find a place to settle down eventually. I think I'd also love to contribute money to literacy initiatives, study abroad programs, and service organizations like AmeriCorps and the Peace Corps.
Q: When they make a movie of your life, who would play you?
A: I would really like to say it would be Bradley Cooper, and on a few magical occasions I've been told I look like him, but realistically Paul Giamatti is a much better choice (I've been compared to him many times, too, and I see it). "Sideways" is still a great movie, though, so you won't see me complaining!
Q: If you were stranded on a deserted island, what would you have with you?
A: I have a little experience with something like this, having lived in Micronesia for two years as a Peace Corps volunteer, so I'll say I would have good coffee with me. You can find food, shelter, and everything needed to survive and even thrive on a deserted island, but nothing will replace the smell of a good cup of coffee as the sun rises.