Tag Archives: Russia

Gilman Alumni Spotlight: Anthony Latta, 2001

We are excited to announce that the Gilman Global Experience Blog will now feature stories from Gilman alumni! Our first alumni post is from Gilman scholar Anthony Latta, who studied abroad in Russia in 2001, the first year of Gilman Scholarship recipients. Read how Gilman has played a critical role in his career over the past 15 years. 

Are you a Gilman alumni with a story to share? E-mail gilman_scholars@iie.org for more information. 

Becoming a Gilman scholar was important for my ability to study abroad from 2001 to 2002 in Moscow and made my career possible. As a first-generation college student, I had resources through student loans and grants to fund my education, but I did not have the resources to fund study abroad, which was considerably more expensive than my in-state tuition at Texas Tech. The Gilman Scholarship made it possible for me to study abroad.

I cannot express how important studying Russian in Moscow for that academic year was. I went from intermediate to high level fluency. In fact, when my parents visited Moscow in March 2002, Russians spoke to my parents in Russian because Muscovites assumed that I had learned Russian at home. The only way I reached this level of fluency was by living with a Russian host family and studying the language for five days a week. The Gilman Scholarship made that possible.

 

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Anthony with Peter the Great in Izmailovo, Moscow in 2001.

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Anthony in Sevastopol in 2001.

 

My fluency in Russian helped me get into graduate school at American University, where I received an MA in International Affairs in 2006. My fluency in Russian then helped me get a job at a large USAID (United States Agency for International Development) implementing partner in 2007, where I initially supported USAID-funded projects in Russian, Ukraine, and Kazakhstan. Since 2007, I have received opportunities to travel in the former Soviet Union and have grown professionally. While I no longer use Russian language on a daily basis in my job, my ability to speak and read Russian was instrumental in getting the job that has led to my professional success. In fact, this year my language skills give me credibility when I interviewed for a corporate ops job supporting operations in Latin America, Africa, and Eurasia. My language skills showed that I have a professional and personal interest in running programs abroad.

While my spoken Russian language skills today are no match for 2002, I continue to read books in Russian – and translate Russian jokes into English for my wife, much to her chagrin. I have now spoken Russian longer than I have not, and I cannot imagine my life without the language. In fact, as I write this paragraph, I look at the chalkboard in my office, on which I’ve written snippets of Russian sayings.

For anyone interested in achieving high fluency in a foreign language, I sincerely hope that the Gilman Scholarship can help you reach that. In my job as a hiring manager, foreign-language fluency and cultural awareness that fluency and studying abroad affords are necessary and set individuals apart. That is how I have achieved professional success, and I believe it will continue to do so for others.

And for all of this, I truly thank the Gilman Scholarship.

 

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Anthony on one of his later visits to Russia.

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The Return (Unaffiliated with Derrick Rose)

My final days in St. Petersburg went as usual: I would avoid the massive pothole that is usually filed with water outside of our building door, I would reply to the graffiti remarks in my head on my walk to school, passing by the tastiest Georgian restaurant that became a Friday evening favorite, and running diagonally to cross a huge intersection before the cars started going for us – all done of course in St. Petersburg fashion, with rain clouds denigrating the sky in the background. Though everything appeared typical, my thoughts and pangs in my heart spoke more solemnly. This anguish was sourced from my growing relationship with my family in Russia (mom, bro, sister), knowing that although I was returning to America, I was leaving my family behind.

After five years of phoning to the city government to fix the pothole, they finally came around to it... and just plopped a pile of asphalt on a fraction of the hole. It's still progress and I will actually miss that pothole that greeted me every day before entering our building.

After five years of phoning to the city government to fix the pothole, they finally came around to it… and just plopped a pile of asphalt in a fraction of the hole. It’s still progress and I will actually miss that pothole that greeted me every day before entering our building.

This meant that I would be bereft of my Russian mother’s delicious borsch, the interesting conversations with my sister on Jewish art, and the reverberations from my brother’s guitar, voice, and even harder-hitting lyrics. The core of my sadness wasn’t simply leaving behind the aspects of their care for me, it was more so the frustration that came with knowing that they are the ones who have to continue living there during the economic hardships in Russia. Though the ruble’s depreciation may have been convenient for the American students, the hard-hitting financial, economic, and social impact on Russia that comes with major recession and high inflation is devastating to communities, including that of my host family.

I realize that this financial crisis is a burden that cannot be immediately solved by regular citizens, let alone myself, so I really had to focus on the good aspects of my experience there. On my last day in Russia, my mom there prepared a meal for the four of us, my brother prepared some music that he performed with his guitar, and my sister also participated in the entertaining conversations. When it was finally time to leave, I will never forget the sullen faces of my host mom and sister through the glass window of my taxi. The taxi driver asked me if I was going home and with a brief moment to think, I replied with, “da.”

I am very thankful for the love, care, and hospitality that my host family in Russia provided. We are a team that is not to be separated anytime soon. I have made a promise to return and I choose to live by my word.

I am also very thankful for the excitement and mirth of the holiday season in America. Upon my return, streets were gleaming with decorative lights, Christmas trees were elaborately and sumptuously adorned, and my friends and family welcomed me with wide smiles and open arms. I think that if it weren’t for Christmas, my 21st birthday and New Years all within three days of each other, my return would have been a little more gloomy. Fortunately, I am surrounded by loved ones that made my adjustment back to the States as warm and welcoming as a cup of Russian tea.

Until next time, my dear St. Petersburg.

As the famous saying goes, you can take the girl out of Russia, but you can't take the Russia out of the girl. Adorned with a Soviet wool scarf on Christmas Day.

As the famous saying goes, you can take the girl out of Russia, but you can’t take the Russia out of the girl. Adorned with a Soviet wool scarf on Christmas Day.

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Odd One Out

A specter is haunting me in my final week in Russia. It is not the specter of communism, but rather of culture shock– the relentless, unremitting, and perhaps unavoidable period of time during one’s experience in a foreign community. It is finals week and throughout my four months in St. Petersburg I still have not felt culture shock. First I will refer to a general timeline that postulates the typical notions towards one’s surroundings before, during, and after their study abroad.

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The Red Square in Moscow.

First arriving in the new environment, the person would usually be perceiving their surroundings as new, interesting, and exciting. Soon, differences become apparent and irritating, thus resulting in serious frustrations, which could eventually turn into homesickness to the degree of one feeling helpless and depressed. Eventually with new strategies established to cope with the frustrations, the subject will start to accept and perhaps embrace cultural differences, usually to the extent of becoming close to the new friends made in the foreign country. Upon the subject’s return home, though some things seem to have returned to normal and have become routine again, they are not quite the same. Eventually, one will incorporate what they have learned and experienced in the foreign country into their new life and career.

That general timeline was crucial to reiterate because I am not one to have seen it as an accurate parallel to my experience. Instead, I was moderately familiar with the culture, language, and civilization having been born in Bulgaria. Certainly I had difficulties learning the language and needed some getting used to walking and using public transportation everywhere, but it is with confidence that I say I did not have any culture shock throughout my trip. In fact, I was thrilled to leave my small college town where I would see the repeating fashion styles on campus, where I had to eat the same processed food daily, and where social activities were beginning to seem repetitive and dull. As a write during finals week, indeed I am experiencing my first anxieties of having to return home.

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St. Basil’s Cathedral in Moscow.

I can’t just expect to pick up exactly where I left off. My school has welcomed a new freshman class and I will be taking completely new classes outside of my field of study. My entire life I have had some feelings of alienation in school when I couldn’t speak English fluently or afford the most stylish brands. Today I simply worry about having a similar, if not intensified experience.  However I am often reminded that although difference can be new and intimidating, ultimately it is what makes us unique and cultured.  Perhaps the best measures I should take before returning home are a positive mental attitude, keeping in touch with new friends from Russia, and ultimately incorporating what I have learned abroad into my studies back at my home institution.

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Discussing “What” and “Who” in Russia

Language is not a neutral entity. It forms opinions and attitudes. It can be used to degrade differences and inflict violence or to proclaim diversity and achieve recognition. I am a firm believer that the understanding of the “other” through language and culture is the key to future success in democratic development in the world. Thus, failure to speak the language and neglect the cultural differences of your opponents leads to a predictable defeat of spreading democratic values.

Prior to my study abroad experience, I had only taken two semesters of Russian language, which introduced me to the basics, equipped me with a solid foundation of vocabulary, and had me comprehending speech. However, upon arriving in Russia, I quickly realized that having a basic understanding of the language from a textbook and actually utilizing it to communicate with locals are separate battles. My immersion in the language quickly stripped my initial fear of speaking Russian, and soon enough I developed a feel for the language and am now able to follow complex lines of argument and participate appropriately and meaningfully in many social interactions with locals.

Studying the Russian language for me is not only an academic challenge. After graduating from Illinois Wesleyan University, I aim to enroll in a graduate program in international development where Russian as a language and Russia as a geographical and political entity will be the focus of my future academic inspiration. I have even been thinking about pursuing the field of library and information science, where my desire to conduct research in a discipline focusing on Russia and the Russophone world can be made realistic.

The knowledge and perspectives gained thus far from my study abroad experience and particularly my sustained study of Russian language has truly intensified this desire and commitment to developing and further advancing my language skills. Aside from my conversation and grammar classes here, my Russian History, Russian Civilization, and Presidential Elections courses have equipped me with a newly intensified desire to pursue professional training that could lead me to a career in any field dealing with Russia, including government, education, and human rights.

I am aware that the above information sounds quite polished and projects me as someone who knows exactly what they want in life and has a couple of strategies to get there. The reality is that I don’t know where “there” is, though I can tell you with certainty where my “here” is at the moment. I often cringe at the question, “What are you doing after you graduate?” and insist that I reword it first. (Brief nostalgia turn: It’s quite funny realizing that I am being picky about the diction of a simple sentence in English when I couldn’t even participate in the Month Song in kindergarten when I first moved to America. Hopefully I am making my mom proud.) Returning to the matter: The “What are you doing after you graduate?” question is built on the foundation of “what,” which implies that we should put on our soothsayer hats and reply with some official job title. The question that I prefer being asked is, “Who do you want to be after you graduate?” That question awakens all components that make up who I am and causes them to fight to get their turn to respond. In fact, by answering to “who,” we, the millennial generation, will most likely end up answering the “what,” however we will be dong this indirectly by first expanding on the person that we are each trying to develop. This allows us to explore possibilities in greater depth and removes the veil from the often covered timeline after higher education, that part of our lives (the rest of it) that has a deeper reward than just the monetary one we will receive from our careers.

Now you must be certain, from the revamped information above, that I must really have some answers in my back pocket. Well just like the nearly empty pockets that my family had coming to America, my current pockets are also bereft of anything valuable. I am more focused on living deeply and sucking out all the marrow from life, both during my study abroad experience and back at my home institution. I know that though my pockets feel empty of polished and impressive answers, I am gaining such knowledge that no one will be able to take from me. My education and adventures in Russia are recalibrating my previous prospects for my future and making sure that I find out who I would like to be before I get too caught up in becoming a highly marketable “what.”

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Conservation in Russia

“The most majestic and beautiful of all the world’s cities, it seems, has dozed off the banks of a fast-flowing river . . . resting from storms scudding overhead and the apparitions of the past, hardening into these colonnades, these bronze lions, these eternally smiling sphinxes, into the black angel on the top of Peter and Paul’s Fortress . . . And through this drowsiness, waiting for new, even unexpected shocks that will open its granite eyes onto a second life.” —Alexei Tolstoy

The policies of the Soviet Union, a time when officials felt that pollution control was an unnecessary hindrance to economic development and industrialization, can be found at the root of many of the environmental issues in Russia. Large parts of Russia’s territory began demonstrating symptoms of significant ecological stress by the 1990s, largely due to a diverse number of environmental issues including deforestation, energy irresponsibility, pollution, and nuclear waste.

While vehicle and industry emissions are certainly an increasing danger, the irresponsibility towards water pollution remains the most serious concern as it has caused health issues in many cities as well as the countryside due to the poor treatment of waste water prior to being returned to waterways. Water treatment facilities are obsolete and inefficient and combined with the lack of funding this has not only caused heavy pollution, it has also resulted in waterborne disease spread. Much of the water pollution is a result of the dumping of industrial and chemical waste into waterways.

The trademark Louis Vuitton monogram is spray painted uniformly on these Russian trash cans. An ironic and humorous representation of luxury masking the sad truth of environmental unfriendliness.

The trademark Louis Vuitton monogram is spray painted uniformly on these Russian trash cans. An ironic and humorous representation of luxury masking the sad truth of environmental unfriendliness.

As a partaker in the time-honored American pastime known as consumerism, I am among many Americans who have noticed the labeling of consumer products become more complex than just a seal of approval from Good Housekeeping magazine.

Usually uniformly green, the labels on American goods all share the mission to protect our Earth and its resources, as well as safeguard the health, safety, and well-being of the humans and animals who call it home. Each label represents a different goal, whether it be practicing energy conservation, reducing waste, supporting sustainable forestry, or lessening our reliance on agricultural chemicals.

Unless you are a frequent shopper of overly priced goods, it’s quite rare to find the Russian equivalent of USDA Organic, Energy Star, or the recycling triumvirate of “reduce, reuse, recycle.” In St. Petersburg, it is totally different because the average person is not concerned about waste and sorting it. They simply don’t care about garbage disposal. There are however activists; students and the younger generation in particular who are interested in implementing and improving the dynamics of environmental conservation. The government has very few projects in place that aim to change people’s attitudes and approach towards nature. Further, officials decry the economic and social costs of environmental degradation. They lack the commitment, resources, and organizational capacity to address environmental problems.

Let us preserve the beauty of this frosted rose, along with other aspects of nature, as it prepares itself for the Russian winter.

Let us preserve the beauty of this frosted rose, along with other aspects of nature, as it prepares itself for the Russian winter.

The near future of Russia appears to be unable to deal effectively with the daunting environmental challenges posed by decades of Soviet and post-Soviet environmental mismanagement and recurring economic crises. Although the prolonged contraction in economic activity has resulted in significant drops in most pollution categories, substantial environmental improvement will depend on an array of socioeconomic, institutional, and cultural changes that will need to be facilitated by international engagement. Major progress is decades away.

 

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Small Children, Big Impacts

Hearing the mantra of a child’s laughter can bring great joy. In a similar regard, receiving a kind look from a child can save you from your own darkness. Children absolutely fascinate me. Please refer to the photo below, where you will see a lovely little darling squatting to play with the dirt. What you can’t see pictured in this photo is that the child is really in front of the Catherine Palace, which with nearly 1 kilometer in circumference it is the most grandiose summer residence in all of Russia. What’s comical is that the little girl was more intrigued by the dirt, on which hundreds of tourists had walked on earlier that day, than an 18th century triumph.

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Young stranger being amused by the dirt in front of the Catherine Palace.

It is this very fascination I have with the minds and personalities of youngsters that urged me to find a volunteer opportunity that involved youth to supplement my study abroad experience. The demand for English speakers is enormous in Russia, as the value of learning the international language of business and commerce is appreciated by many. Also, old stereotypes of an economic system fueled by vodka and general lawlessness have made native English teachers scarce in Russia. The demand for native speakers to teach English in Russia far exceeds the supply. With this in mind, I came across an opportunity to volunteer as an English teacher for first through eighth graders at a private academy about a half an hour outside of the city.

The English lessons commence after the students’ core classes and extracurricular activities have ended, leaving me with usually very drained students to work with. Clearly, an efficient plan needed to be implemented if I wanted my pupils to absorb as much knowledge in the limited time we had together. I noticed that combining both a communicative language approach (vocabulary and conversation exercises) and an interactive approach (opportunities in lessons for both speaking and listening), the kids started to build a basic understanding of English.

The classroom where the English lessons take place and subsequently where students build their foundation as future leaders.

The classroom where the English lessons take place and subsequently where students build their foundation as future leaders.

Once a week, I get individual time with every student and depending on their proficiency level, I facilitate question-and-answer sessions, Simon Says games, and deeper discussions on a variety of topics. One young girl in particular warms my heart like no other as she greets me in her best English and smiles with her newly growing adult teeth. Together, we read interesting tales and later complain about things like “silent E’s” in the English language. I can really see the wonder in her eyes.

One of my star students, Dasha, as she tries to read,

One of my star students, Dasha, as she tries to read, “school, bus, train…”

Teaching the language was certainly not as challenging as finding topics to discuss with some of the older students in the academy. The academy I volunteer at is quite prestigious, and therefore only attended by those who can afford it. I struggled speaking on the topic of public transportation in the city with one of my students as he very loudly grimaced at my mentioning of the St. Petersburg metro system (a quite fascinating and efficient system in my opinion). He couldn’t imagine himself riding in such a dirty and crowded cart when he could very easily be transported by his mother’s luxurious BMW. Certainly a response like this can infuriate many Russian citizens, particularly the estimated figure of 70 percent that is below the middle class. My first taste of the the wealthier side of Russia unexpectedly came from a young pupil of mine. I realize that his upbringing leaves public transportation out of his daily rhetoric.

While this attitude about elements of different social classes can certainly become more developed one day, a positive change for the low-income Russians is unlikely to come anytime soon. The highly monopolistic economy that’s controlled by a small number of political-business elites is not only slowing down the social mobility from the middle to the upper-middle class, but could even cease as a result of the current crises (low oil prices, Western sanctions, and deep-set economic problems). When the reality stands out to be very grim, I am reminded that I myself am still young and capable of making a change. I hope that by teaching students the English language, they too will become interested in ways they can use their abilities to make a positive impact. Who knows, maybe one of my pupils will save the Russian social class system one day.

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Me in Your Life, You in Mine

I used to aim to gain everyone’s friendship by focusing on people-pleasing in order to be liked by all with whom I interacted with. Please don’t let my use of the past tense mislead you into thinking that I stopped this empty act a long time ago. College and particularly my experience in Russia are truly helping me understand the type of people that gain my respect and admiration, and subsequently the people that later become my inspiration. I have learned that when you let people see the raw you, deep and powerful connections can occur, which can further change your demeanor for the better.

As a child and a young adult, I have been in many situations where I have felt left out or simply like I did not fit in. Whether it was the outcome of a language barrier or not being able to afford the clothes that were in style, I frequently have felt like an outsider. I would later develop the opinion that being uncommon is quite interesting in a society that is obsessed with social media “likes” and “comments” of positive affirmation. Again, please don’t be fooled, I too enjoy the notifications and virtual positivity that appear on my Facebook and Instagram. I just want to highlight that how we portray ourselves in these mediums should truly be how we identify ourselves.

Whenever I exercise my freedom of posting photos, I am reminded that people on the opposite end scrolling on their phones will start to create their own identity of me in their minds based on what they see. That is why I only post whatever I truly identify with and am aware of the possible interpretations that others may have. We can’t fully control other people’s understanding of us, but we can prevent our online identity from transcending our real identity. That is, we can continue posting photos of our food and friends, but at one point, this medium can make our names into their own artificial brand. As long as you prove that you are more than what your online identity says you are, then I am not worried about the effects of social media.

What is even greater than a “like” on a photo is a real life friendship. Friends in real life offer their love and cherish us for who we are. In Russia, I have allowed myself to fall with grace into the generous and welcoming arms of those that I have learned to call my friends. I didn’t just take a wrong turn and become close with strangers… Well I kind of did, but there was more effort than that.

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Here is a representation of the merging of my virtual identity with my true identity, a photo of my dear friend Katya and I.

While attending a ballet at the Mikhailovsky Theater (an event that left me stunned by its beauty) I noticed a fashionable girl next to me dressed in a deep red skirt that easily could have been worn to a red carpet event. I didn’t realize that offering my compliment would lead to the blossoming of a new friendship in Russia. Katya has made St. Petersburg a home for me.

Katya volunteers at my institute, St. Petersburg State University, where she communicates with Americans in Russian, organizes excursions for us, and more than that offers her genuine kindness and help.

Although it was a random compliment that got us talking, it was later the mutual sharing of our insecurities, our social anxieties, and our inner struggles that would bring us so close. Perhaps we could agree that it isn’t the perfection or whatever we advertise on Instagram or Facebook that draws us to one another. Instead it is our common interests, struggles, and ultimately the energy that we exude.

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