A Liberal-Arts Awakening for Soviet Students in US

Visiting undergrads found a wealth of course subjects, experiences at Eastern colleges

`TWO and a half years ago,'' says Olin Robison, president of Middlebury College in Middlebury, Vt., ``people in Washington laughed at the idea'' of bringing Soviet undergraduates to study in the United States for a full academic year. The Soviets would take the same courses as the Americans, be graded on the same scale, live in dorms. And they would experience a concept unheard of in the Soviet Union: liberal-arts education. A computer major could study dance; a math student could take German.

But a year later, Soviet authorities bought the idea - even the notion of letting their students stray out of their majors, though they considered it frivolous.

The first year of this program, run by the American Collegiate Consortium for East-West Cultural and Academic Exchange (based in Middlebury), has now been completed. Of the 56 students from eight Soviet republics who fanned out to 26 Eastern US schools last fall, all but one finished the year.

Many of them flourished. Vladimir Kulyukin, an English major from Moscow, studied Japanese and Latin and published some short stories in a local paper while at Washington & Lee University in Lexington, Va. Killu Tyugu, a molecular biology major from Tallinn, Estonia, ran her own radio interview show at Oberlin College in Oberlin, Ohio. Others played varsity sports. Some even got straight A's.

And then there were those who decided that fraternity parties were the ideal way to learn about American youth culture, and that they could do a semester's worth of reading the night before the exam - well, maybe three nights before. For them, the liberal-arts experience included learning what it feels like to get an F in America. There were also times when relations with American students didn't go smoothly: Some of the Soviets were touchy about criticism of their country, or about differing standards of personal hygiene. One of the students, whose outlook was profoundly affected by a year in America, divorced his wife when he got home.

For the past year, the Monitor followed the progress of the seven who attended Middlebury College in Middlebury, Vt., Swarthmore College in Swarthmore, Pa., and Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, N.Y. Each story is unique. But they all have one thing in common. They learned that, contrary to the clich'e, American and Soviet youth are not alike. Profiles of the seven follow:

Middlebury, Vt.

Kristine Terkazaryan. For this 20-year-old from Yerevan, Armenia, the headline on her year at Middlebury could read: ``Computer Student Discovers She's Really an Artist.'' Faced with the program's requirement that half her courses be outside her major, she decided on a whim to take studio art.

``It's opened up my mind,'' she says. ``I've changed. I think differently....''

``You know,'' she continues, leaning forward as if to impart a secret, ``I don't really want to do computers. Here, it's so nice - you don't have to decide your major before going to college. I think if I had come here from the start of college, I would never have majored in that.''

Hardly what the Soviets want to hear out of a young woman selected to gain expertise in American computers. Not that she failed on that score: When she wasn't practicing her pastels or nude figure-drawing, she could be found at the computer center doing homework on the Pascal programming language and cryptology. But her enthusiasm for art is so overwhelming that it made one wonder what kind of future she had in the Soviet structure.

``Let's say if I wanted to change [majors] from computer to math, I could take a test and maybe it could happen,'' she explains. ``But from computer to art, that would be starting over. People don't do that!''

Not being one to fight the system, she seems comfortable about the prospect of going home and becoming a computer professional. Art would make a nice hobby, she says.

Kristine's favorite souvenir is a videotape of ``typical Middlebury scenes,'' she says, ``like people diving into puddles.'' What about romantic attachments? She laughs at the question - perhaps because in the Soviet Union, journalists never ask about such personal matters. Or it may have been that the attractive young woman steadfastly kept the boys at bay, according to her acquaintances.

Maris Melkisis. The 23-year-old law major from Latvian State University in Riga admits it was his fault that he flunked Art 101, had to drop his computer course, and got C's in macro-economics and political science.

``In my first months in America,'' he says, ``I went to parties, frats, hiking on Sundays, instead of classes.... I like art, but I didn't want to study it. Same with literature. I want to read or look at what interests me, not what the teacher says.... I liked the library, too, and I spent lots of time there, reading magazines and newspapers. And I read Trotsky.''

The second semester gave him a second chance, and he proved he could get it right - leaving time, of course, for intramural soccer, volleyball, and basketball. He even managed to pass Poli-Sci 318, Modern Political Philosophy, one of Middlebury's tougher political science courses.

For Maris, studying in America contained a certain irony. The glasnost and perestroika that allowed him to study abroad in the first place have unwittingly produced tremendous upheaval in Latvia. This drive for greater autonomy, including the formation of the Latvian Popular Front, was the moment Maris had dreamed of, and here he was in America missing the action. Maris admits he wished he were closer to home and to his parents, both of whom are lawyers and politically active. Maris's father, Edgars Melkisis, is a legal adviser to the Front.

``My generation is more radical than the previous, who have seen all these repressions,'' he says, adding that he plans to get involved in the Popular Front when he returns home.

Sergei Plyasunov. Like Maris, this 22-year-old philosophy major at Alma Ata State in Kazakhstan headed straight for the library when he got to Middlebury and found what he wanted: historians Roy Medvedev and Sergei Milgunov, writers Andrei Sakharov, and Alexander Solzhenitsyn, all in the original Russian. He passed many happy hours reading literature that was forbidden before arrived in America.

Then came the end of the semester. Three days before his final exam in logic, he began to read the 300-page course book. By exam time, he had actually finished it, no mean feat for someone who knew only a smattering of English when he arrived. But alas, he too failed. The teacher let him retake the exam, which he passed.

But Sergei's extracurricular pursuits gave him a new perspective on his country. ``Some of the things which were a black blot in our history are now clearer,'' he says. ``And I see the world more widely now. It used to be narrow. Here you get lots of information, positive and negative. Now I can have a real opinion.'' Sergei became particularly disturbed when he saw the film ``The Unbearable Lightness of Being'' and its depiction of Prague Spring, complete with real news footage. It had never occurred to him that the people of Czechoslovakia did not invite the Soviet tanks in.

Like Kristine, Sergei was vague about any relationships, but happy to speak his mind about Middlebury women in general: ``They are loud and not very ladylike.'' It seems that sweat pants are not part of Sergei's feminine ideal. Sergei was also put off by what he saw as the Middlebury student body's homogeneity. They all get money from their parents, he declares. ``At home,'' he says, ``friends are the most important thing. At home I have four or five very close friends who will be there whenever I need them. In the United States, people put work before friends.''

Swarthmore, Pa.

Mikhail Chkhenkeli. Being a good Swarthmore student, this 20-year-old math major from Tbilisi, Georgia, made his studies his top priority. (``I think there are fraternities here, but I'm not sure,'' he once said.) This included weekly trips to the nearby University of Pennsylvania for a graduate research class in dimension theory. At Swarthmore, he studied abstract algebra, topology, combinatory logic, German, and English. The result: straight A's, and even some A-pluses. He also had some articles on math published.

Misha found major differences in the way Americans and Soviets teach math. In the US, there is more student participation and not as much lecturing by the professor. ``That's a good idea,'' he says. ``When you participate in the procedure of explanation, you'll have a better feel for the subject.'' But he prefers the Soviet style of exams, which are given orally and therefore involve interaction with the professor, who can ``evaluate your thought process.'' Misha also says that he likes the idea of students planning their own programs.

Nadezhda Olshannikova. Nadya almost didn't make it to Swarthmore at all. The 20-year-old computer science major arrived late, tired, and knowing only a few words of English.

``After Day One I was ready to send Nadya home; she couldn't communicate!'' says consortium director Raymond Benson. ``But she was the only one from Voronezh, so we let her stay. I'm glad we did.''

Nadya proved to be a fighter. She got A's and B's, mastered tennis, and by spring was getting along fine in English. But the real jaw-dropper came during winter break: Nadya took the better part of her monthly $150 stipend and bought a student-rate, round-trip bus ticket to California.

``I wanted to see real life, to get to see real America and be by myself, touch everything by my own hands,'' she explains as she traces her odyssey on a map of the US: from Philadelphia to San Francisco, hitting a dozen major cities along the way.

``On the bus I met two young women who were going to Hollywood with some strange purpose, to become actresses or something. They were before in New York. One was from Pennsylvania. They were pretty.''

In the end, Nadya had a harder time assimilating than most of the Soviet students in the program. Perhaps it was because she comes from a working-class family, where - if her remarks are any indication - Russian pride runs strong. According to her roommate, Nadya was not very tolerant of others' criticisms of her country, to the point where it ended some friendships. When I mention how easy Moscow's Pushkin Institute was when I studied there in 1980, she is quick to correct me. ``That's not possible,'' says Nadya, who has never studied in Moscow. ``All institutes in Moscow are very demanding.''

Poughkeepsie, N.Y.

Ruslana Bryk. Though Vassar College has been coed for 20 years, Ruslana immediately became aware of the school's history of educating women. And the young biochemistry student from the Ukrainian city of Lvov wasn't sure she liked what she was hearing. ``Feminist ideology,'' she says, is not a battle for equality, it's a fight to prove superiority. She was appalled to hear some of her female comrades at Wellesley and Mt. Holyoke colleges starting to spout similar notions. When asked her view of Vassar men, Ruslana would only say that she didn't particularly like them. ``All they want is things,'' she says.

When it comes to her work in biochemistry, Ruslana seems right in the middle of things. Her eyes light up when she describes an experiment involving thousands of fruit flies. The lab at Vassar is much better equipped, she says, than anything she had access to at Lvov State. And for the first time, she has had the opportunity to use computers in her research.

Peeter Vyrk. ``Modern dance was the best!'' exclaims the computer major from Tallinn, Estonia. ``The best part was creative group dance. The teacher gives a sentence, and you must put it into dance. We had a good, crazy teacher. Her name was Susan Epstein, but we called her Susie.''

Like Middlebury, Vassar was also apparently doing its best to distract young Soviet minds sent to America to help the country catch up technologically. But Peeter couldn't have been happier. When he wasn't dancing, doing computer homework, or trying to understand male-female relations at Vassar, he was out running varsity cross-country or playing intramural sports.

Peeter took the ``liberal'' in liberal arts seriously and found his way into a course called ``Sex, Gender, and Society.'' But he soon discovered it was more than he could handle: ``One of the first things the professor said was that you have the right to choose what sex you are; then you can play this role in society. That doesn't make sense! What happens if I decide to be a woman, and I fall in love with a man, and then we decide to have children? Then what?''

After a few weeks, Peeter decided to stop taking the class for credit, but to keep attending anyway. That way he could just sit and listen to discussions that seemed especially remarkable to someone from a culture where homosexuality is still taboo. And like Ruslana, he had a thing or two to say about Vassar women:

``If I had to talk about my first impression of the women here, I would say they are beautiful, have long hair, and love to talk - to argue. Underline the word `argue,''' he says. It's not debating, it's pointless arguing. They tell you what to think!''

He does allow that, at home, the women sometimes go too far in the other direction and keep their opinions to themselves when in mixed company.

``But please,'' he continues, ``don't overemphasize the bad when you write your article! Everything's been perfect here.''

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.