Collaboration with Vitebsk State U in Belarus leads to new study abroad program

Students at the U.S. Embassy in Minsk
Students at the U.S. Embassy in Minsk

Playing laser tag in a Quonset hut with decommissioned military weapons modified with laser sensors is not the obvious activity for a spring break study abroad trip.

However, that's just one of the numerous cultural immersion experiences students in Laura Kline's third-year Russian language class undertook during a new, and unexpected, study abroad trip to Vitebsk State University in Belarus over spring break.

The trip resulted from a fall presentation by guest lecturer and VSU law professor Dzianis Biarozka. Biarozka was in Detroit as a fellow through the Professional Fellowship Program, fully funded by the US Department of State and administered by American Councils. His experience in Detroit was organized by Global Ties Detroit, a longtime WSU partner. Global Ties Detroit contacted staff in the Office of International Programs about Biarozka's visit, which connected him with Kline, figuring that it would be a fantastic opportunity for students to practice their language skills with a native speaker.

Following his return to Vitebsk, Biarozka kept in contact with Kline and the two professors coordinated weekly Skype sessions so their students could practice their language skills with each other: Kline's practicing Russian, Biarozka's practicing English.

Students visiting the WWII memorial in Vitebsk
Visiting the WWII memorial in Vitebsk

Student Andrew Smith says within a few weeks of their first meeting with Biarozka, many of the students started to ask about the possibility of going to Belarus for spring break, pitching that the best way to learn a language is through cultural immersion.

"With science, there's always lab work you have to do," Smith says. "With culture, unless you get immersed in that culture, it's difficult, there's no lab component to it."

After some serious discussions, Kline and her class shifted into gear, fundraising through crowdfunding platforms and approaching a number of university departments, including their own - Classical & Modern Languages, Literatures and Culture. CMLLC provided financial support, as did the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.

"The students and I knocked at every door we could think of, and a number of people responded very generously," Kline says. "CLAS itself was our biggest supporter and made the trip possible. Without the college's support, this trip would not have happened."

Many students in the class say they were surprised to discover the trip was happening. Even Kline says she was unsure. "We didn't actually believe we were going until three weeks before we left," Kline says.

Thanks to their efforts, Wayne State became the first American study abroad group to visit VSU. The visit was so important to VSU that the group was formally received by the university president and the dean of the philology department. The 10-day trip included homestays with Belarusian families, which made student Sarah Haloostock practice Russian out of necessity.

Kline and students with the president of VSU
Professor Kline and students with the president of VSU

"Our host mom didn't speak English, so she was speaking to us only in Russian, so every day we were speaking to her in Russian, and it really helped us," Haloostock says. "It was nice because then I learned a lot of new words too, and I kept track of them."

The students also practiced speaking Russian in a public setting, giving presentations at VSU and a local high school in both Russian and English. Student Paige Brynaert says she soaked in a lot of information, inside and outside of VSU. "The academic component and the fun components kind of come together," she says.

The students say the trip balanced leisure activities with academic work, and they had practical takeaways from both aspects of the trip, such as visiting a banya, a steam bath the originated in Slavic culture and is popular in Belarus.

"You sweat out all of your problems, and then you go out and run in the snow," says student Mara Kuhne. "Or you don't go in the snow, but I did. It's an authentic experience."

Student Anastasia Alexandrova says the discomfort many students felt while immersing themselves helped them grow.

"Afterwards, you're really grateful in a weird way that you had to go through uncomfortable situations," Alexandrova says. "I think that's what made us all take something out of this trip."

Kline says the trip had a profound impact on her students.

"Their Russian improved significantly," Kline says. "They learned more about themselves and about our society, both the strengths and the limitations."

The Office of International Programs leads Wayne State's global engagement by creating opportunities that foster international education and research, facilitate the exchange of individuals and ideas that promote global competencies and citizenship, and provide resources that support the expansion of the university's global agenda. Follow us @WayneOIP.

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