Why American students still go to Russia

The fact that the interest toward Russia among American students is steadily growing indicates that exchange programs remain a powerful tool of rooting out the cold war mentality. Source: Sergey Pyatakov / RIA Novosti

The fact that the interest toward Russia among American students is steadily growing indicates that exchange programs remain a powerful tool of rooting out the cold war mentality. Source: Sergey Pyatakov / RIA Novosti

Despite another decline in U.S.-Russian relations, interest in Russia among American students is steadily growing. This indicates that exchange programs remain a powerful tool for rooting out the Cold War mentality.

Although U.S.-Russian relations are not in good shape and the image of Russia leaves much to be desired in the United States, there has been a growing interest in Russia among American students.

According to data from American Councils for International Education, around 900 American university students come to Russia annually, while the total number of high school students is approximately 250 (not counting tourism and short-term, teacher-led visits of less than one month).

Out of the 30,000 students who study Russian in college, about 9,000 continue to study the language beyond four semesters. Remarkably, nearly 10 percent of these students go on to continue their study of Russian language and culture at Russian universities for a summer, semester, or academic year.

Why American students still go to Russia

Ambassador Michael Mcfaul with the 2013-2014 exchange students at his Moscow residence. Source: RBTH

While there has been a slight decrease in the number of Russian students coming to the U.S. (related to cost issues and competition with Europe), this is not the case with American students going to Russia.

“The U.S.-bound Russian student numbers are down in comparison to 10 years ago. The American numbers to Russia have benefitted slightly from increases in scholarship funding available to them over the past 5-8 years, through programs like NSLI-Y [National Security Language Initiative for Youth], CLS [Critical Language Scholarship] and Flagship — programs for which American Councils is the primary overseas administrator,” Dan Davidson, president of the American Councils for International Education, told RBTH. 

Davidson believes that, despite some differences at high government levels, U.S. interest in Russia remains stable.

“American students, teachers and researches will remain interested in Russia, in Russian culture, and in dialog with Russian people, regardless of the tenor of official, government-to-government relations at any particular moment,” Davidson said in an interview with RIA and RBTH. “This has been the case for many decades and it will not change.”

Likewise, Carter Johnson, director of the American Councils for International Education in Russia, argues that political differences between the countries have not affected bilateral ties on educational and cultural levels. This indicates that people-to-people communication has remained a very crucial tool for bolstering bilateral relations and mutual interest.        

“Government-to-government relations sometimes encounter difficulties,” Johnson told RBTH.

“On the political level, relations undulate: You’ll have periods of strength and periods of weakness. [Meanwhile], the level of interest in Russia and these exchange programs remain quite consistent. Here you don’t see such fluctuations, and these exchange programs produce a bedrock of underlying relations and contacts that are both strong and enable people to understand what is going on beneath the political rhetoric.”

Carter Johnson, director of the American Councils for International Education in Russia

Click to view the video by RBTH: What drives Americans to go to Russia?

According to Johnson, there are several trends in the U.S. that account for the growing interest in Russia. “Mainly, Americans who are coming to Russia are very passionate about Russian language, history and culture,” he said. “They hold a deep interest in trying to understand the country better. These people are also, more broadly, just deeply curious about the world.”

Another trend involves practical considerations such as academic goals and career advancement. High school exchange students who study abroad are much more competitive when they are applying to undergraduate university programs, Johnson explains.  

“Employers really value this experience and the skills that are developed when an individual spends a semester or a year abroad,” said Johnson. “This includes the ability to make better decisions, problem-solving skills, and the ability to understand problems from a variety of different perspectives — and employers are ready to pay a premium for that.”

Maria Chetyrkina, the NSLI-Y program manager based in Washington, D.C., echoes his view. 

“Exchange programs such as NSLI-Y provide an invaluable forum for engaging American and Russian citizens in public diplomacy,” she said. “As our American students spend time in Russia and get to know the local population, they are able to provide insight about the U.S. and American culture to host country nationals, while, at the same time, they learn about Russia from their host families, local youth, teachers and others.” 

According to Chetyrkina, learning about each other in such an intimate and personal atmosphere can provide Americans and Russians with information and stories that they would be unable to get from the news, in movies, or via social media.

Chetyrkina coordinates American high school students coming to Russia under the NSLI-Y program, which offers intensive language immersion in different countries. Scholarships are available for students to learn seven different languages, including Russian. Since the program’s launch in 2006, there have been around 2,500 NSLI-Y alumni.

For the 2013–14 academic year, eighteen American students are going to study in Kazan under the NSLI-Y program. 

“The major goal of NSLI-Y is to provide opportunities to American youth that will spark a lifetime interest in language learning,” said Chetyrkina. “During summer 2013, approximately 90 American high school students studied for a six-week summer program in a variety of locations in Russia. The number of students who participate in the academic year program increases every year.”

When asked about new educational exchange formats, Johnson said that there could be a number of directions for the future, including distance learning.

“Massive, open, online courses are gaining popularity here in Russian and U.S. academic institutions, and these are online formats that enable students to participate from all over the world,” Johnson said. He pointed out the analogy of online gaming between U.S. high school students and their Russian and European counterparts, which brought a new generation closer together.

Internships create another promising field where exchange can prove fruitful.

“I spoke with many Russian students who would like to have an internship at a U.S. company,” said Johnson. “And we have a lot of Americans who want to come and conduct internships here in Russia. This is a project that we hope to develop further. Regarding the places of internship, we can start with large, multinational corporations, media organizations and smaller companies, which see the benefits that come from having a young, American professional contribute to their working environment.”

Exchange programs for American and Russian students

1. The National Security Language Initiative for Youth (NSLI-Y) program sends 80 American high school students to Russia for a summer or for a year. It is directed by American Councils and funded by the U.S. Department of State.

2. The Critical Languages Scholarship (CLS) program sends 50 American undergraduate students to Russia each summer, on full scholarships funded by the U.S. Department of State and administrated by American Councils.          

3. The Flagship program annually sends 20 graduating seniors in various disciplines to St. Petersburg University to train in Russian (advanced–professional level). The program is administered by American Councils. 

4. The Russian Language Advanced Studies program places 200 American students, graduate students, and teachers of Russian language in leading universities and centers in St. Petersburg, Moscow and Vladimir. Participants study with assistance from the U.S. Department of Education and the U.S. Department of State.     

5. The Open World program brings more than 800 Russian business and municipal representatives to the U.S. each year for short-term meetings with their American counterparts. The program is funded by the U.S. Library of Congress.   

6. The Future Leaders Exchange (FLEX), now in its 20th year, brings over 300 Russia high school students to the U.S. for a year to live with American families and study in American schools. The program is funded by the U.S. Department of State.     

Russia Beyond the Headlines and American Councils for International Education has launched a project about American students in Russia. Follow RBTH’s updates to learn more about these students’ experiences.

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