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Sunday, May 4, 2014

Looking Through New Eyes

French novelist Marcel Proust suggested, "The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes." This year has enabled me the opportunity to "see with new eyes." In August we welcomed a foreign exchange student from Russia into our home for the full academic year. This has served as a valuable source of learning for me as I view experiences with new eyes.

Kids have been known to employ the following phrase to describe a perplexing situation of comparison and contrast - "The same, but different." I now find myself referring to that expression when reflecting on the result of these interactions.

Anton is a participant in the FLEX program (Future Leaders EXchange) sponsored by the United States Department of State. It is a competitive, merit based program that selects promising young men and women from candidates representing Russia and the former countries that formed the Soviet Bloc (i.e. Armenia, Tajikistan, Ukraine, Kazakhstan…). For each student admitted to the program after essays, reference checks, and extensive interviews, there are nearly three-hundred applicants who do not meet the lofty standards. The goal of FLEX is to provide the several hundred FLEX sponsored teenagers with a year-long experience designed to expand their awareness of our culture, political structure, economy and daily life so that they can understand our country as they aspire to productive futures in their native nations.

Modern media and the reach of social networks among youth can account for the discovery that Anton arrived from Russia with much more than a passing awareness of American culture. In fact, he possesses an astounding knowledge of American music, both past and present. In addition, he was well versed in language, both formal and informal, with a surprising command of slang and cultural nuances. Yet, he was stumped by the simple and overlooked everyday items that had escaped the scope of television shows, movies, and Facebook. For instance, he looked all over the counter at an ice cream stand searching for straws without realizing he was standing right in front of the straw dispenser. He was shocked as the straw appeared after a flick of the finger on the tab that released the straw from the container. He hadn’t seen anything like it. Ah, the blind spots of the mundane that fail to attract the interest of postings on websites or exported movies and television programs.

Anton is a curious and intelligent young man (seventeen years old) with a keen interest in the distinguishing characteristics of America, particularly the rights we too often take for granted, and a surprising grasp of world affairs, which is very evident as Russian intervention in events in Ukraine unfold. He has earned my respect with his ability and willingness to sort through the complexity of issues and attempt to analyze both perspectives – that of a native Russian, and that of a Russian currently enjoying the full spectrum of freedoms routinely available in a democracy that the people of Ukraine seek as a future goal. He explores Russian media, the British Broadcasting Corporation, The New York Times, and Al Jazeera in an effort to research a balanced perspective on the dispute that threatens the tenuous status of relations between his country and NATO, the European Union, and the United States. I wish that more American teenagers were as attentive and concerned as Anton is with world news and developments. Then I am reminded of the nature of the FLEX program that identifies the best and brightest applicants to bring to our country and realize that it’s not a fair comparison.

The most pronounced difference in education between Anton’s schooling in Russia and his experience here has been one of focal points and opportunities. That is, beyond attending school six days a week in Russia, the schools in his hometown (like those of most public schools outside of the United States – we’ve previously hosted foreign exchange students from Holland and Germany) lack the breadth of social activities that exist in schools throughout America, whether large or small, affluent or poor. Specifically, he has been pleased to discover a variety of sports and extra-curricular activities on the expansive menu of American schools. He has eagerly devoured these opportunities – playing on the school soccer team and baseball team, attending many dances and meetings of the Junior Class, student council… In addition, study halls are another new experience.

It appears that Anton’s typical school day in Russia is narrower and academic oriented and involves more rote learning or recitation on an individual basis that isolates each student as they comply with rigid guidelines and find the one right answer to algorithmic problems. Attention and debate on the Common Core controversy aside, this contrasts with the focus on the group effort and the desire to promote creativity through exercises that are heuristic in nature that is the goal of public school education in much of our country.

So, while Anton has assimilated himself rather easily into the social milieu of American teenagers because of his familiarity with our widely exported pop-culture across media streams, he has had to adjust to the flexibility and accessibility of school experiences and degrees of prioritization. Though he was baffled at first by the apparent discount of all things learning as measured against his education at home in Russia, he has come to realize and appreciate the benefits accrued through the menu of social/educational experiences in American schools that promote growth in the “whole child.” The manner in which teachers provide instruction and the wide range of opportunities available to American students has been confirmed to Anton by his fellow FLEX students from abroad during his electronic exchanges with them as they encounter similar perspectives in schools sprinkled across the map of the United States.

In short, though I could write on and on about the many experiences Anton has had, and his reactions to them, it seems that the culture has been rendered permeable on levels shared by teens and therefore is more the “same,” while the way we go about our daily lives is “different.” That is to say, while Anton enjoys the same movies (he can quote from many popular films) and the same music and similar clothing styles, he does not enjoy the liberties within a truly free environment, since he will return to a country with more guarded access to media (particularly with the propaganda emerging from the Russian view of the US in light of the crisis in Ukraine) and restrictions on expression (i.e. the jailing of members of the Russian music group Pussy Riot after singing a song protesting Russian leader Vladimir Putin).

I hope Anton has learned as much from me as I have learned from him. He is a terrific young man with a promising future. I think the world would be a better place if there were more frequent cultural exchanges like this so we can all learn that in many respects, we are more alike than different.

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