DARE Stories: Changing Lives, Changing Culture – Kamal Aubakirov and 360 Mentors
In this episode of DARE Stories, Kamal Aubakirov tells the story of 360 Mentors: an educational organization changing the lives of youth in Kazakhstan by helping them prepare for college.
During our annual event, we asked you to tell us your stories; of creative challenges, ideas, and successes. In collaboration with DARE Clan, this storytelling series introduces creative entrepreneurs from around the world, telling us the impact and change they bring about, all in their own words.
This week, we meet Kamal Aubakirov. Kamal is the co-founder of 360 Mentors, an educational organization based in Almaty, Kazakhstan, that helps high school students prepare for college and beyond. Currently, he is an international student at Kenyon College, studying Economics and Public Policy and playing varsity basketball.
This is Kamal's DARE Story.
Growing up in Kazakhstan, I had comfort living in a community that genuinely cared for me. But the future I envisioned and the dreams I had as a kid often got crushed by that same community, along with a culture of pre-determinism, stemming from the fear and drags of the Soviet times.
This was a culture of school, work, and family. Nothing ever came in-between. While living in my hometown of Almaty, I often wondered if that was how my life would unfold: short of opportunities and challenges that'd make me go beyond what I was taught – a life without ever daring to think outside the box.
Fortunately, my school in Almaty offered basketball as an extracurricular activity and had a gym where my classmates and I would relentlessly spend most of our time. Sports – and basketball, in particular – have always been a way for me to escape the dull environment that our Kazakhstan culture has created. By the time I was graduating from high school in 2016, all the efforts that I'd put into sports had led me to be the captain of the National Kazakhstan U18 team for basketball 3x3.
Throughout the year, we were lucky enough to travel and participate in numerous tournaments – such as the European Masters and World Championships – something that rarely happens given the little funding that our basketball federation provides. But the opportunities arose and I took full advantage of them. Alongside great team victories, I would spend every spare second trying to learn more about my fellow team mates.
We were all from different parts of Kazakhstan and had had vastly different experiences growing up.
But one thing seemed to stand out as a common denominator: our educational background.
See, the path to a sports career in Kazakhstan and other CIS countries often disrupts any educational beginnings and hopes that a kid can have. Naturally, when I asked my teammates about their dreams and aspirations, I was overwhelmingly sad to hear that most of them were too afraid to share or had none.
I heard the stories of how they were forced to turn "pro" at an early age to get paid and start providing for their families, while their new lifestyle was disrupting for their own personal development, leading to no further opportunities to continue education.
It is no secret that the likelihood of becoming a professional athlete is minimal in any part of the world, and the likelihood of being a 'successful' one of high financial standing is even less. But despite the sliver of chance, people around the world like to try. Why? Because in most countries, an investment in a sport or hobby is not the end of the world.
In Kazakhstan, however, that sliver of chance may be the only chance they get – because in many cases, these child prodigies don't have a proper education to fall back on.
The thought in itself made me determined to help; to change this culture that seemed so indifferent and nonchalant to our futures.
I started thinking and sharing ideas with my brother Askar. In 2019, we founded 360 Mentors together – an educational organization based in Almaty that helps high schoolers with college preparation.
Over the past two years, over 400 students have gone through our programs, from general college counseling and English language learning to programs where they build and manage their own social projects to create impact in their own communities.
We have also helped students get over 2 million USD in grants and scholarships to study in the best colleges across the US, Europe, Asia, and Kazakhstan.
As we move forward and learn from our experience of building educational projects, we look forward to establishing a wider impact in our region - to create a system of preparatory high schools that can provide equal opportunities for kids.
Our mission is to prepare high schoolers for the ever-growing demands of life in college and post-college, so that kids can have options to choose from and an educational foundation to fall back on when needed. No more pre-determinism. We're changing Kazakhstani culture. Along with preparation for higher education, we cultivate civic engagement through our programs as we believe that students need to be active participants in the communities they live in to help sustain change in our culture.
A culture where kids can dream, dare, and not be afraid to talk about it.
This article is written by Kamal Aubakirov, in collaboration with DARE Clan and xPlot.
To read more about Aubakirov and 360 Mentors, you can follow them on Instagram and Facebook.
Cover photo: Kamal Aubakirov in his hometown of Almaty, Kazakhstan. Photo: Private.
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