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'Person-to-person diplomacy': Exchange program builds relationship with Russian Sister City

Liuda Kukhareva (center) and Daria Stoianova listen to Linda Rav on Friday in the Benedictine Commons at the College of St. Scholastica in Duluth. A banquet was held on Friday night to welcome students from Petrozavodsk State University to Duluth. (Mike Krebs / mkrebs@duluthnews.com)

Thirteen college students found out that swimming in Lake Superior is colder than their hometown's lake in Russia while visiting Park Point on Thursday.

Before the end of July, the students and two of their professors will also canoe on the Brule River, see a Duluth Huskies game, visit a lake home, help on a Habitat for Humanity project and explore the North Shore. The activities will be coupled with classroom studies at the College of St. Scholastica in culture, literature and music that will help the students when they become English teachers after graduating from Petrozavodsk State University in Duluth's Sister City of Petrozavodsk, Russia.

The students arrived at St. Scholastica on Wednesday, amid months of national media speculation about Russia's impact on the 2016 presidential election that became especially pointed on Friday with a meeting between President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin at the G20 summit in Germany.

Petrozavodsk student Grigorii Kuleshov said they were aware of the news stories about Russia in the U.S. media — one of the Petrozavodsk students was even jokingly asked if he hacked the election while going through U.S. customs — but Kuleshov said relations between the two countries didn't influence his decision to travel to Duluth for the student exchange program. It's an educational opportunity and his first chance to visit the United States, he said, and it doesn't make sense for news stories about national politics to exclude him from traveling.

"I don't expect to meet any people here who will be prejudiced and I will definitely not be prejudiced towards Americans because of some of the news pieces," he said. "We have something special here. This is the real relationship. This is not something distant."

Now in its 28th year, the student exchange between St. Scholastica and Petrozavodsk State University is about establishing "person-to-person diplomacy," said Karen Rosenflanz, associate professor of Russian and German at St. Scholastica.

"It's not really about the higher-level politics. You have to make changes by people actually getting to know one another and that's sort of an irreversible change or influence on someone's life," Rosenflanz said.

The exchange helps students converse in Russian and English and build relationships with each other during college, in addition to allowing faculty to create long-term working relationships, Rosenflanz said.

Petrozavodsk student Kristina Bokacheva, participating in her second exchange to Duluth, said her first visit to Duluth inspired her to expand her world.

"You shouldn't be afraid of anything. You know when you live in a small city, when you study at the university nearby your house, it's like, OK, I can go somewhere nearby for a holiday, it's one thing. But it's a second thing when you make a huge decision in your life, like I'm going to another continent with people I hardly know. After that, I just changed my mind, absolutely, that you shouldn't be afraid of anything," she said. "I'm not afraid of learning something new. It's like you have some walls in front of your eyes and they're absolutely destroyed so no stereotypes, no something scary for you. It's like the world is open for you."

Petrozavodsk student Polina Vlasova agreed, saying, "It's not about only learning languages and boosting our language skills, it's also about relationships between different cultures. I think we all have ambition to share our knowledge with other people and our future students because learning language is not only language, it's about culture."

Kuleshov noted that traveling to Duluth allows them to observe the differences and similarities between the United States and Russia and come to their own conclusions.

"It is real. It is not what you see on TV. It is not what you are told to believe. It is what you make of it and that's what is great about it — it's your firsthand experience and you are the judge of your experience, so you have to think for yourself," Kuleshov said.

Coming to Duluth feels different from home for them. Kuleshov noted that everything from Duluth's infrastructure to St. Scholastica's automatic doors and layout and how they checked out at a store were different. But the outdoors in Duluth feels the same because Petrozavodsk is on the shore of the second-largest lake in Europe (Lake Onega), similar to Duluth's location on Lake Superior. Bokacheva noted that she enjoys the friendliness of Duluth.

"They are so friendly. This is the thing I notice here in America — everybody is so friendly and they're happy to see you. Nobody is actually wanting to talk to you about politics or some serious things, they're just interested in you personally, which is really nice, too," Bokacheva said.

Petrozavodsk professor Igor Krasnov, who has been with the exchange since its beginning, estimated that several hundred students have traveled between Duluth and Petrozavodsk over the years and they always remember their first trip because it's an eye-opener. The experience grows into family and friendships and even some marriages. In Krasnov's family, his son is a St. Scholastica graduate and his daughter is participating in this month's exchange in Duluth, their "home away from home," he said.

Rosenflanz pointed out that Russian is considered a "lesser-taught language" in the United States despite the U.S. State Department listing it as a critical language for students to learn. Part of her goal in teaching Russian is to introduce St. Scholastica students to something they typically know very little about and visiting Petrozavodsk is "a complete eye-opener" for them, she said.

One of Kuleshov's professors in Petrozavodsk had previously participated in the exchange and, before he left for Duluth, she told him that she never saw the world in the same way again after visiting Duluth.

"To change the world, you need to actually change the world ... not necessarily. You need to change your perspective and that's what can happen here," Kuleshov said.

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