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A woman with long black hair smiles, holding her hands around her face. Pine trees and shrubs blanket the mountains behind her.

International chemistry senior finds her footing at Oregon State

By Elana Roldan

Marua Bekbossyn visited her home in Almaty, Kazakhstan in 2023, hiking up to the nearby mountains to eat a heartwarming meal of plov with her cousins. The return trip made her feel more connected to her culture and people than ever before.

It was a distance that felt impossible. When she left the city of Almaty, Kazakhstan for the U.S. to pursue her bachelor’s in chemistry, Marua Bekbossyn could never have imagined how acute that separation would feel. Over 6,000 miles of ocean, land and mountains, a 12 hour time difference and countless nation borders stood between her and her home country. She was thrown into the deep end of a daunting new reality and struggled to keep herself afloat.

This story is all too common among international university students. What made the difference for Bekbossyn were the genuine connections she found at Oregon State. A conversation with her organic chemistry professor completely shifted her outlook on the situation and her experience navigating a world away from home, helping her to embrace the life she’d built here. In the fall, she even plans to attend New York University to earn her master’s degree.

Through pursuing an M.S. in Management and Systems, a degree focused on STEM leadership in business, she aims to someday improve science education across the globe so others are afforded the same opportunities as her.

“My ultimate goal is to promote and develop scientific facilities in Kazakhstan and beyond. I think it will be a very long, very important journey,” she said.

Finding her groove

Within the switch from one nation to another, Bekbossyn also found herself leaving behind the hustle and bustle of city life. Though the difference was staggering, she grew to appreciate what the change of pace offered.

“In Corvallis, people are a little bit more considerate and truthful because the city is small and everybody knows each other,” she said. “Because I’m a naturally fast-paced person, I don’t really stop and think. Oregon helped me a lot to stop, breathe and think.”

Still, her first year wasn’t a walk in the park. Learning English at a new depth while trying to digest content from her science classes was especially difficult.

Built to help international students in the same situation, the INTO OSU program became a valuable resource for her during this time. Its office in the International Living-Learning Center dormitories was always welcoming and understood that studying abroad had its fair share of obstacles. The program alleviated some of the language barrier burden by offering classes for college-level English. Bekbossyn even credits it for equipping her with the writing skills she used in her application essay to NYU.

The wind blows through a woman's hair as she holds up a peace sign in front of a distant Statue of Liberty.

Bekbossyn spent New Year's Eve in New York City and visited the Statue of Liberty during her trip.

To further capitalize on campus resources, she learned the importance of asking questions. Finding the courage to speak up to teaching assistants, other students and professors to get clarification didn’t come naturally, especially when many were native English speakers. But as she became more comfortable with the space and people, it was easier to take the brave step and wonder how things worked out loud. This, she says, is a key skill not only for students, but for anyone in science.

“Open-mindedness and not being scared of speaking your mind and talking to people, connecting to people, is really important. Asking lots of questions in college helped me to understand that and be more confident,” she said.

Patched with gold

Moving across the globe from familiarity was a hurdle Bekbossyn was still unsure she could clear. When she failed an organic chemistry class during her second year, it was the crushing crescendo of all the emotions she’d felt trying to adjust to her new environment. “Everything was crumbling,” she recalled.

That is, until she spoke with organic chemistry professor Paul Cheong. After she shared her experience with him, he empathized and invited her to celebrate Christmas and Thanksgiving with him and his family. It was the warm welcome she needed and one that showed her the sincere connections waiting to be made at college. She still carries a particular piece of their conversations with her today.

“He was telling me about this kintsugi bowl,” she said, “or when a bowl breaks but then you patch it up with gold. It’s like something broken might be even more beautiful, even if it’s not the same as before. I found that so fascinating. It stuck with me.”

Cheong also spoke about how the mind heals differently than the body, saying that although a person may have mentally moved on from something in the past, their body may still be trying to catch up. “They were a few words, but they spoke a lot to me,” she said.

A woman leans against a concrete rail and looks out to the Pacific Ocean, wisps of clouds painting the sky.

Bekbossyn drove to Newport, Oregon to visit the Oregon Coast Aquarium and clear her head by the ocean.

Opportunities for all

As the school year comes to a close, Bekbossyn prepares for a return to city life while seeking her master’s degree at NYU. A “scientist in mind and entrepreneur at heart,” one of her overall career goals is to bring together researchers to make more effective medicine, particularly for diabetes in honor of her late grandfather.

“He was always trying to make us happy,” she said. It was his encouragement and support that enabled her and his other grandchildren to attend college outside of their country. “He wanted a better future for us. He said, ‘Let them go abroad, explore, travel and study.’ I’m grateful for that.”

Using the science knowledge she gained from her bachelor’s in chemistry and the leadership and business skills she’ll learn during her master’s, she hopes to blend the best qualities of Kazakhstan and the U.S. to improve access to STEM in underserved countries. The professors she’s had have left a profound impact that she wants other students to experience, no matter where they are.

“They teach because they’re passionate about it and they care about people. They’re always very genuine with students,” she said. “People from around the world come to the U.S. because they don’t have that education privilege in their countries. I want to spread it out.”

From the peaks of Almaty to the hills of Corvallis, Bekbossyn has already sewn science together across the globe. Wherever she lands next, she looks forward to adding a new stitch.