Every 2–3 years, over 100 countries from around the world gather in a new location to explore concepts of global significance at an event called World Expo. This year’s theme was future energy. Representatives from 115 countries met in Astana, the capital of Kazakhstan, to present their country’s interpretation of that theme. The USA Pavilion, a nonprofit group representing the United States at Expo 2017, selected 40 ambassadors to come to Kazakhstan, run the pavilion, interact with guests while speaking Russian, and perform a variety of public relations tasks for the State Department. 

The Expo 2017 site was at the southern end of Kazakhstan’s futuristic capital, right where the rapidly expanding urban expanse abruptly ends and turns into empty steppe. The event site consisted of the Kazakhstan pavilion—a giant, eight-story sphere—surrounded by concentric rings of buildings housing other countries’ pavilions. The US pavilion was between the Vatican and Venezuela, with Poland right down the way.

The US pavilion featured several video shows, a model city displaying energy grids provided by GE, an interactive exhibit about Chevron, a copy of the always-popular Hollywood sign, and a display showing the American and Kazakhstani flags shaped like hands joined together in a firm handshake, symbolizing the cooperative relations between our two countries. At every stage of the pavilion, student ambassadors were positioned to interact with guests and manage the attractions. On a daily basis, we interacted with thousands of guests, mostly from Kazakhstan, with some Russians and Europeans. The occasional American guest was always a welcome surprise.

Naturally, other countries interpreted future energy in different ways. Russia brought a giant iceberg and some model ships to showcase their plans to explore the Arctic to find new energy sources. Georgia brought a whole lot of wine. Turkey had an escalator up to a volcano. Germany brought an electric BMW and had an impressive laser light show. The crown jewel of the event was, without a doubt, the Kazakhstani pavilion, an eight-story sphere with an interactive science museum inside. A potential source of future energy was on each level of the building.

The student ambassadors from each pavilion lived in Expo Village, an apartment complex located adjacent to the Expo site itself. Although many of the apartments were unfinished when we moved in, they were brand new and quite spacious. We had neighbors from almost every corner of the world, which made for a very interesting living experience.

In addition to our work duties at the US Pavilion, many of the student ambassadors had the opportunity to travel both around Kazakhstan and to other nearby countries, including Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Georgia, Armenia, Ukraine, Russia, Turkey, and India. Most of us also made visits to Borovoe, a famous lake resort located a few hours by car or train from Astana.

Overall, it was an incredibly interesting and rewarding experience, both to be in Kazakhstan and to be among young people from all over the world. It was a totally unique experience we will be talking about for years to come. In the meantime, we will be sure to keep an eye on Dubai, which is currently preparing to host Expo 2020.

Kazakhstan Pavilion Interior. Photo by Mark Dovich and Jonathan Poser.