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Kyrgyz Contest Turns Problems Into Prizes

Kyrgyzstan--students submitted essays, photographs, and video to the Kyrgyz Service's student life contest. Bishkek, 2014.

Over 150 university students from Kyrgyzstan had a chance to share the difficulties they face and the successes they’ve experienced in a contest held by RFE/RL’s Kyrgyz Service, known locally as Radio Azattyk.

Students were invited to tell their stories in the form of text, photos, video, or any combination of these elements between March and June 2014.

“I really wanted to find out about [the students’] lives: how widespread corruption is, how secure they are, and what the conditions of their lives are,” said Venera Djumataeva, director of Radio Azattyk. “A secondary goal of the competition was to attract a younger, more diverse audience.”

While this was Radio Azattyk’s first contest strictly for students, it has held other competitions in the past, including one marking the anniversary of Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, organized jointly with the U.S. embassy in Kyrgyzstan.

Prizes for the 16 winning students included four tablets, two smartphones, and ten books. Radio Azattyk judges focused on the content of the stories rather than grammar or style.

One award-winning piece was written by Kasen Kyshtoobaev, a 19-year-old journalism student from the Bishkek Humanitarian University, who successfully resisted pressure to pay a bribe to his English teacher--a common practice at Kyrgyz universities around exam period. He described how he managed to pass his exam without paying the teacher off, thanks to his hard work and determination.

His piece resonated with other students, many of whom left comments on Radio Azattyk’s website, including the following one.

"It is incredible to see how one student can beat corruption! Together we can defeat corruption in the country, let's unite our thoughts and efforts!"

Other winners described abusive behavior from older students living in their dormitories, or food deprivation caused by lack of finances. One student confessed she only sleeps three hours per night as she struggles to balance her university workload with the demands of her job, and yet still struggles to pay her tuition fees and support her family.

It wasn’t just students who took notice of the stories. During her visit to Bishkek, Djumataeva met a Kyrgyz politician who was taken aback by the students’ submissions. “He said he hadn’t known how the students lived,” Djumataeva said.

Aigerim Beishenbek, a 20-year-old Kyrgyz IT student from Haceteppe University in Turkey who participated in the contest, said he was thankful to Radio Azattyk “for giving us this great platform to share our thoughts and problems. I am very grateful even if I don't win anything!"

--Marketa Horazna