Hailing from Omsk, one of Russia’s largest urban centers east of the Ural Mountains, Fulbright Teaching Assistant Elena Sergeeva was attracted to Fairfield University for the same reason many locals are. The beach.
“For me I love the ocean,” says Sergeeva. “I come from the middle of a continent and have to travel 10,000 kilometers through Europe to Portugal to see the ocean. When I saw that Fairfield was on the shore, I was so happy I called everyone I knew.” Her father, perhaps, was the happiest of all. “Good,” he told her. “Now we don’t have to hear about the water, the water, the water – at least for a year!”
Sergeeva didn’t hesitate to dive into the ocean or her new position as the first Russian and East European Studies (RES) Fulbright Teaching Assistant Fairfield has ever had. When she first arrived in America, she asked everyone with whom she came into contact where she could learn to surf, and then for two months tested her surfing aptitude off the shores of Long Island. Next she made a splash among the RES minor students as well as many history, literature, politics, and international studies majors with an interest in Russia. In addition to teaching Oral Practice Sessions for the Russian language, she has been heading the weekly Russian Hour gatherings since September 2009. During the Russia Hour, she shares her cultural perspective on issues such as education, interpersonal relationships, travel, pastimes, sports, cuisine, holiday celebrations, and more.
For Elena Syssoeva, Adjunct Professor of Russian Language, Sergeeva is everything she hoped for in a teaching assistant. In Spring 2009, when Fairfield received the four finalists for the position, Sergeva stood out as “someone who was a seeker,” says Syssoeva, “constantly in pursuit of new experiences and eager to do something meaningful with her life.” As David McFadden, Professor of History puts it, “From all of the possible candidates, she seemed by far the most curious, interesting, and dynamic.” Both McFadden and Syssoeva also appreciated that Sergeeva:
- Had a passion for languages and teaching
- Obtained degrees in world history from Omsk State University and English at Omsk University of Terminology and Translation
- Worked at the Omsk State Museum of Fine Arts
- Taught both English and Italian in Novosibirsk schools
“I tell my Fairfield students that they are the bravest ones,” says Sergeeva, “because they have to work three times harder than students in non-critical language classes. Russian is a complicated language, with different endings for feminine, masculine, neuter nouns and verbal conjunctions. When you speak you can’t really keep all those rules in your mind, so I teach them to just listen to the sound of their speech. It needs to sound right and natural to them.”
Sergeeva’s curiosity, energy, creativity, and personal touch has made fans of students and faculty alike. A driving force at Fairfield’s recent National Foreign Language Week, she taught students a fun Russian dance called “Rucheek” (“A Tiny Brook”), conducted a jeopardy game on Russian history and culture, and acquainted students with the process of decorating Russian Matryoshka dolls. “In addition to being well organized and full of creative ideas,” says Syssoeva, “Elena is very attuned to the interests, needs, and wishes of the students. She brings superb visual images, a well thought-out format, and lively and engaging interaction at the Russian Hour gatherings.”
Most of all, Sergeeva brings Russian culture up close and personal. Because she comes from a vast region of Siberia, her stories of living in two major urban centers, Omsk and Novosibirsk, have helped Fairfield students “put Siberia on the map.”
Conquering Fears and Prejudices
While Sergeeva might have dived into this lifetime opportunity from the moment she stepped on America’s shore, she spent a bit of time in hesitation and meditation when she still stood on Russian soil. “For an instant I thought of rejecting the program because of all my fears,” she admits. Her fears stemmed from stereotypes on both sides of the ocean. For one, she was afraid that Americans would badger her about communism and Stalin, and thought that kind of experience would be self-destructive.
On her end, she believed Americans put way too much emphasis on diversity. “I always thought Americans paid too much attention and focus on this issue, and that if they just let it go, the problems would disappear. I always believed you make problems bigger when you talk about them.” Sergeeva has learned, however, that because of history, Americans “can’t behave the way I used to think they should. I used to think life would just sort itself out if you let it be, but now I see that activism – based on current and historical events – has its place in shaping society today and in the future.”
Sergeeva worked on her fears before she left her native country – reaching out to friends, interacting with Americans on the Internet, and realizing that both Russians and Americans are limited to what their respective governments and media share unless they go see for themselves. How would she overcome her negative perceptions if she didn’t push herself? “I decided not to expect the bad, but if I came across bad things, I’d handle them,” she says. She also kept her primary motivation of coming to America on the forefront of her mind – to improve her English. “As a teacher, it’s not right to say you speak English but have never been to an English-speaking country,” she points out. “I knew I needed to emerge in the culture and the language to really speak it well.”
Sergeeva’s immersion in the American culture has brought many new awarenesses. For one, she believes Americans live “on the extreme sides of life,” with some girls so obsessed with being “healthy” that they eat only salads and work out at the gym three hours a day, and others who down hamburgers and French fries at lunch and dinner and don’t think twice about it. “At the food store, you buy a package of broccoli and it’s marked as healthy food. This, to me, is an obsession with your body. There’s no golden medium.”
During Sergeeva’s one-year term at Fairfield, she is learning as much about her own culture as she is about America’s. Like any study abroad experience, there’s an awakening of the self as well as the world around oneself. “I feel I am more Russian here than I am at home. You learn to recognize your culture only in comparison with another culture. Otherwise it’s always with you and you don’t pay attention.”
Today, Sergeeva enjoys Fairfield friends who are diverse and international. “I have met lots of friends from other countries here. Russian society is very homogenous compared to American, and I love that so much and will miss it when I go back home. I finally got to know the U.S. from the inside and it’s completely different than what I expected, in a good way.”
In addition to teaching, part of the Fulbright experience is to continue one’s learning. Required to take two courses per semester, Sergeeva enrolled in Race, Gender, and Ethnic Relations, Italian (her second language), Italian literature, and Intercultural Communication. What she loves about the educational system at Fairfield is the opportunity for students to choose classes according to their interests and time, unlike Omsk State University where she was put in smaller seminar groups with only students of the same age and specialization.
She also appreciates classes that actively engage students in the learning process, rather than the lecture class “where the professor just talks.” This example has taught her a lot about teaching, and she hopes to challenge her future students in different ways when she gets home. Upon her return to Russia, Sergeeva plans to update her resume and try to land a job teaching English at a language school. In fact, she is thinking of using space in the office building her father is currently investing in to start her own private language school and go into business for herself.
McFadden has faith that Sergeeva’s curiosity, energy, and enthusiasm will serve her well wherever she teaches, and is grateful that her Fulbright experience at Fairfield University will leave a mark on the RES program. A request for another Fulbright TA has already been made, and because of Sergeeva’s success he believes they stand a very good chance of getting her successor.
“She relates extremely well to our students not only because she is closer to their ages, but she is also interested in the same things they are interested in,” says McFadden. “This shows that youth the world over really share similar concerns and interests. And it helps our students see that Russia and America are not that far apart, especially when it comes to people – and to student life.”
Adds Sergeeva, “I came here with the fear that I’d have to overcome prejudices left over from the cold war, but I found that Fairfield students are so much beyond that and are so interested just in life. And now two students from the Russian language classes and regulars at the Russian Hour have decided to study abroad for their Spring 2011 semester at St. Petersburg to experience Russian life for themselves. I guess that’s one good sign that I came!”
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