Sunday, April 22, 2012

Scholar shares personal story of modern Russia

     Steven Cunningham, professor of English as a Second Language at Valencia College,  shared his perceptions of modern Russia, and broke down stereotypes and preconceived notions about the former American adversary. His work with the Fulbright Scholar program gave him the special opportunity to explore another culture as an educational ambassador.

     “Living abroad and learning from a new culture really helps you to learn who you are, and appreciate what you have,” said Cunningham. He spent three months in the small Russian town of Orsk learning everything he could, working with students in a foreign language program teaching English.

     Discrediting preconceived notions about Russia was the first topic discussed at this open lecture. They don’t all drink vodka -- in fact most prefer a warm cup of tea, and though photos do exists on the internet, bears do not randomly roam the streets wherever you go. And though the country has undergone a post-communist identity crisis, they are now reaping the economic benefits of trade with a booming oil industry.

     Cunningham gave a detailed rundown of Russian history as he went on with his presentation. He then spent the majority of the speech discussing living conditions and practical observations of the areas he visited.

     Major shopping outlets that had barren shelves after the 1980s are now packed with high-end merchandise with even more variety than stores in America. The upper-class shoppers at locations like this are starting to reap the benefits of rebounding economics.

     One large issue that Russians are trying to catch up in is the advent of the latest technology. Classrooms in Russian Universities are still using technology from over 20 years ago, and newer devices and networks are not readily available.

     There was even a delegation of Russian educators that came to Valencia in February; to discuss incorporating old teaching programs into a modern school system, and showcase what technology has to offer in the form of online courses and digital textbooks.

     There are also other cultural differences that come across as misunderstanding of intentions. Giving a friendly smile and wave to a total stranger is seen as a fake or condescending gesture. It's seen as normal in their culture to be untrusting of someone you don’t know, especially if they come across as extra nice to you.

     Well, you have got to go to Red Square; that and the Kremlin are the best places to visit in Russia,” said Todd Hunt, the college-wide director of Valencia’s bookstores. Hunt has made several trip to Russia in his lifetime and hails Moscow as the best place for a first-time tourist looking to get the full Russian experience.

     Russian politics is also a hot topic, with the recent and questionable re-election of Vladimir Putin. The last 30 years of Russian leadership was explained, all leading up to this most recent election and why it has inspired protests from Russians, like when voting ballots were being openly changed by election officials.

     To prepare for the cultural and linguistic challenges before his trip, Valencia foreign language student and Russian citizen, Yelena Burkduskaya, helped Cunningham with personal tutoring and advisement.

     “If you are going to travel to another country, you have to be prepared or you will be disappointed,” said Burkduskaya. “It’s a completely different country, like a different planet in a way.”

     Professor Cunningham hopes to continue his work with Fulbright Scholars in the future and continue to explore and interact with foreign cultures. More information on the Fulbright Scholar program can be found on their website at

By James Tutten

(Published: April 11, 2012 issue of "Valencia Voice" on page 3.

(All photos by James Tutten)

Treats from Russia were provided at this event to give a small taste of another culture.


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