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Astana, Kazakhstan • 23 August, 2022 | 10:19

‘The American Dream Is Not As Easy As You Think’

Kazakh student works on one of Elon Musk's project

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Even a hermit living in the jungle has probably heard of the world-famous American businessman and inventor Elon Musk and one of his pioneer projects, a high-speed Hyperloop vacuum train he proposed in 2013.

The project is still under development with many more trials to go. To highlight the importance of the project and recruit talent to build a Hyperloop prototype, an annual competition among student teams is organized at the base of SpaceX, founded by Elon Musk, in California, USA.

Janna Iklaas, @veriatinskaya happens to be one of the lucky few involved in the construction of the Hyperloop vacuum train as part of the University of Florida Gaterloop team, reports.

From KZ to the USA

Janna grew up in Aktau. She graduated from an economic lyceum in 2016, and then studied at a business school in France, majoring in Engineering Sciences and Innovation Management. The specialty offered the opportunity to obtain a double degree, allowing her to study in France first, then enroll in a partner university in another country. That's how she ended up in the University of Florida in August 2019.

Landing an Elon Musk project

When Janna came to study at the University of Florida, she started looking for a student organization involved in engineering projects right away to gain practical experience. That’s how she found the Gatorloop team who were actively working on Elon Musk’s Hyperloop project. There weren’t any tests or any selection process to join the team. You just have to show that you want to contribute your time and skills. It is actually harder to stay in the team, there are some students who cannot keep up and leave.

In January 2017, the Gatorloop team was one of the 22 that were selected out of 1,500 to enter the final round. Although they were invited to a SpaceX base in California, they didn’t win any prizes at that time. In 2019, they were selected again for the semi-final round, but no date for the competition was announced.

Everyday challenges

"I have two roles. The first, as Vice President of Business and Innovation, I am responsible for creating the Gatorloop brand image, preparing materials for events and conferences, organizing research projects, and promoting them. My second role is to work directly on the capsule framework: creating 3D designs, selecting materials, and performing finite element analysis," said Janna.

"My team is my American family. When I first got here, I didn't have any friends. Now I have 30 hyper-intelligent boys around (girls on the team rarely stay for more than a month). They call me 'mom' jokingly because I always try to take care of them," she shared.

Working for Elon Musk?

Janna wouldn't mind working at Musk's companies, but not for long. She just wants to gain experience. "Every other engineer dreams of working for Space X or Tesla, for any company owned by Elon Musk. But on the other hand, when you work for an American company, especially if it is Musk's company, you have to give not just 200%, maybe even 1,000%. My boss and another colleague worked at SpaceX, and they both left because the work environment was very stressful and there was no work-life balance. They were working 100-120 hours a week," she noted.

Achieving the perfect work-study balance 

"All these years I've been giving it my all, and it's taking its toll: I'm burned out and tired of learning. And combining it with work [Janna also works as a laboratory instructor at the university] and Gatorloop is quite a burden, really. It takes about 80 hours a week: I spend 6 hours working, 8 hours studying, and another 4 hours with Gatorloop team," Janna shared. She added that she plans to take an academic semester off and come to Kazakhstan to get some rest. "I realized that family is the most important thing. And your health, no one will give it back to you."

Getting a job in the US

Janna gave some advice for young people planning to come to the U.S. to conquer the world's major companies. Just studying and just getting a degree is not enough to be successful. "We have a lot of young people who want to get a job. (...) But there's so much competition, it's crazy. When I went to job fairs, I had a big bag with all kinds of things that I designed and built myself. If you're an engineer, you want to show a future employer what you've done. Beyond the fact that you have a resume. Because everybody has a resume."

It is necessary to develop comprehensively. "Take additional courses. If you want to go to tech, then code more. There are a lot of resources online now. You should also take part in hackathons or international contests to build up your portfolio”.

You have to prioritize. "Before you give 80-120 hours of your life to work, you have to think first why are you doing it? What's your ultimate goal. Just to make money? Everyone has their own priorities. For me, for example, right now it's health and family."

"A lot of young people come to the U.S. through the Bolashak program[a scholarship to study overseas with all-expenses-paid by the government provided that they return to Kazakhstan to work for the country for at least 5 years after graduation]. But, after you even get to America, you're a foreign student. It's very hard to get through because many companies require American citizenship. Even if I win a green card, I still can't work for Space X or NASA, because they work with the government. And many companies in America that are engaged in engineering and pay a lot, they are somehow connected with the state," Janna explained.

Janna added that all the talents from every corner of the world go to the U.S., especially many applicants from China and India.

"If you're doing great in Kazakhstan, you're nobody in the U.S. You have to start from the beginning. There's a lot of competition. People who live outside of America and are not foreign students don't understand it and still believe in the American dream. The American dream is insanely hard, and Americans themselves suffer from not being able to deal with this American dream, let alone people from other countries. So, the biggest challenge in this regard is to legally get a work permit for such a big company. And then you can try to get a job."

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