Fulbright Spotlight: Nadya Shcherbenok

Submitted by Lisa Calderone MFA '11 on April 4, 2011

Living in Fairfield, Connecticut when you’re from Bratsk, Siberia takes a bit of an adjustment.

First, there are all those smiles from strangers. “In Russia, it’s not in our culture to smile at strangers,” says Nadya Shcherbenok, a Fulbright teaching assistant in Farifield’s Department of Modern Languages and Literatures and Russian and East European Studies (RES) Program. “At first I thought the smiles here in America were false, but now I know people are just being friendly.”

Second, there’s the daily lack of public transportation. Even the smallest of villages in Russia, Shcherbenok says, offers trolleys and small buses since many Russians don’t own cars. Especially students.

But perhaps the biggest adjustment Shcherbenok has made is in comprehending all that Fairfield students know – and don’t know.

According to Shcherbenok, all freshmen students in a Russian university have a particular set of subjects they all study. Here at Fairfield, there are core subjects that students are required to take, but there are many choices. So, for instance, with a history requirement a student can choose American history but not world history, and not know what is happening in the world. “I’ve asked my students where Berlin is,” she shares, “or where the Cannes Festival takes place, and they don’t know. In Russia, you can’t even imagine a student not knowing where Berlin is!”

On the other hand, her Fairfield students surprise Shcherbenok on what they do know. Their views and attitudes toward life help her to think differently, which is an education all its own.

“Nadya’s students don’t just ask her questions about Russian life,” says Elena Syssoeva, Adjunct Professor of Russian Language who works closely with Shcherbenok, “they also interview her, invite her out, sing with her. She is their mentor and a friend at the same time.”

“Through her presence,” Syssoeva adds, “the pictures of Russia become more tangible, close, and real. It is like instant access through Google, but much more personal, friendly, and enthusiastic. Her students test all possible situations with her – all while speaking Russian.”

On Teaching About Russia – The Language & Culture

It is Shcherbenok’s ease with language that makes her such a strong fit for the RES program. In addition to her native Russian tongue, she mastered English and French at Irkutsk State Linguistic University and now teaches courses in translation to the students at her alma mater. “Nadya knows that proficiency in a foreign tongue requires dedication, motivation, and a good deal of practice,” says Syssoeva.

Spearheading the weekly Russian Hour since September, Shcherbenok has introduced her students to Russian culture such as Soviet rock music, movies, and fairy tales through innovative methods like singing, dramatizing, and watching film clips. Dr. David McFadden, Professor of History and Director of Fairfield’s RES program, observes that “Nadya has strengthened our program by adding a rich cultural enhancement with her creative ‘Russian Hours,’ focusing on music, film, fairy tales, and daily life.”

Adds Syssoeva, “Nadya comes from a vast, beautiful, and often misrepresented region of Russia – Siberia. Nadya has opened a new chapter for our students in the exploration of the land of the Decembrists, taiga, the unrivaled Baikal, and enduring people.” When Syssoeva read Shcherbenok’s essay during the Fulbright teaching assistant selection process, she was struck by Shcherbenok’s arduous desire to share Russian culture and history with American students – which is exactly what the tradition of Russian Hour is all about at Fairfield.

Shcherbenok enjoys working with Syssoeva, who she describes as “always in a good mood.” She watches Syssoeva in action as she entertains students to keep them engaged in class, and picks up on interactive teaching tools she uses herself.

Shcherbenok also teaches weekly Russian oral practice sessions where students practice grammar and vocabulary of their Russian courses. Having only Russian at her disposal, she has to use ingenious tools – drawings on the board, clipped art, gestures, movements. “After a few rounds of guessing games and peals of laughter,” says Syssoeva, “the students invariably arrive at the desired result. Nadya is able to create a friendly and warm atmosphere in which students have fun mastering the complexities of Russian verb conjugations and vocabulary.”

As a teacher and a patriot, Shcherbenok also makes sure the record is set straight about Russian stereotypes. “Americans have this vague idea that it’s cold in Russia, people drink only Vodka, and it’s a communist country. The truth is, we have three months of summer like they have here, people drink lots of other kinds of liquor, and we’re no longer communist.”

On Learning About America

Since arriving in the United States, Shcherbenok has visited Niagara Falls, Hawaii, and the east-coast cities of Philadelphia, Washington, and Hartford. Her favorite of all is New York, where she frequents museums, Broadway shows, and “just the city streets.”

On campus, what Shcherbenok appreciates the most about living in America is the openness and friendliness of the people she meets – from strangers to students to colleagues. “I like that whenever I have a problem, I can ask someone to help me,” she says.

Shcherbenok looks forward to returning to Siberia at semester’s end in May, where she can break down American stereotypes still held by family and friends. Will she  miss America? Yes, she says – she’ll miss her students, she’ll miss New York, but most of all, she thinks – she’ll miss the smiles of strangers.

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