Russian students discuss campus navigation, involvement | Culture

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Violetta Bakunina was 16 when she had to leave her home. Her mother was expecting another child, and with poor health facilities in Bakunina’s hometown, Anapa, Russia, the family made the decision to move to Lincoln.

The move was not initially intended to be permanent. Her father still ran a business in Russia and the idea was that they would come back after her mother gave birth. But with growing political tensions and anti-American sentiment raising suspicion of her father’s affairs among local Russian authorities, Bakunina’s family had to make a choice.

“Especially for the little ones, we were very scared,” Bakunina said. “And so we decided to stay here.”

Bakunina, a junior specializing in microbiology and psychology, is just one of many University of Nebraska-Lincoln students from Russia who find themselves not only in a new place, but also in an entirely different society.

Another such student is Dennis Startsev, a sophomore math student at UNL.

Startsev was born in Lincoln, but spent most of his youth in Stavropol, Russia. After graduating from high school, he left home and returned to Lincoln in 2018, attending his general classes at Southeast Community College before moving to UNL in 2020.

In the first three years he lived alone in the United States, Startsev said the biggest adjustment for him was the language barrier. Although he learned a little English in Russia, he was far from being fluent in English when he arrived. He said he struggled with feelings of isolation and depression as a result.

“Just imagine you make friends in a new country and you can’t talk to anyone for about three years,” Startsev said.

Another problem that Startsev discovered with English was that he felt that the way he could express his emotions was limited.

“It’s really hard to describe something, your feelings,” Startsev said. “You cannot fully express what is in your head.”

Olha Tytarenko, Russian language coordinator at UNL and the only faculty member in the Russian department, said the individualistic nature of American society, which runs counter to Russian collectivism, plays a role in this divide. Communication.

“Russian society is a collective matter,” Tytarenko said. “It’s about the nation, the community, where ‘I’ shouldn’t be any different outside of her.”

Tytarenko said that the tendency of Americans to think in terms of “I” clashes with the Russian tendency to think in terms of “us”, which can make it difficult for Russians to speak clearly.

Bakunina was already relatively fluent in English when she arrived in the United States. Yet she quickly discovered that there were other aspects of communication in America to which she was absolutely not exposed.

Bakunina said the biggest adjustment, aside from Nebraska’s harsher climate, was the stark contrast between the type of language considered polite or appropriate in the United States.

“In Russia, communication is very direct,” Bakunina said. “I had to learn to speak properly because a lot of people would be a little appalled at anything I said, but I didn’t mean it in a rude way.”

Bakunina said that in Russia it was common for criticism of things like someone’s behavior or what they were wearing to be bluntly made, and it was not considered rude to make such statements. .

Making unnecessary conversations, which Bakunina said was almost non-existent in Russia, was another aspect of American society that she found particularly difficult to adjust to.

“For me sometimes having small conversations is even more difficult than writing a scientific research paper,” Bakunina said.

Tytarenko said understanding gossip is a common problem for many newcomers to America, especially when it comes to recognizing it. She said it often resulted in questions like “How are you?” The Russians respond with incredibly long answers that may put off many Westerners.

“There is this lack of understanding, and therefore it is difficult to make real connections with people,” Tytarenko said.

But despite the language barrier, Bakunina and Startsev both found alternative ways out of their isolation.

Bakunina found her outlet by following her passions. It started with dancing, which she said she did for most of her life in Russia. Although she said she had never done ballet before, she decided to try her hand at ballroom dancing, joining the Ballroom Dance Club on campus in her freshman year.

“I have found a lot of friends through this path, and dancing is like a universal language,” Bakunina said.

She also joined a sustainability club due to her interest in biology and sustainability, and then she joined the Speech and Debate team to improve her English.

For Startsev, his increased social engagement started with math. He said he had always been very reserved in most of his classes, but when it came to math he found he was already fluent in a universal language.

“I felt a lot more comfortable,” Startsev said, “and because of that I could be a lot more active in math classes.”

Startsev said he can always be sure he has the right answer, and this has led him to a natural leadership role in helping other students with classroom work.

His talent for teaching eventually shifted to his Russian minor, which began when he decided to take a Russian course on a whim.

There he met Tytarenko, who encouraged him to join the Russian club, which she oversees. She also gave him an unofficial tutoring job for a few of his Russian classes this semester, which he says got him even more involved with the club.

Tytarenko said the club has hosted various events this semester, including a Russian barbecue serving marinated meat skewers known as “shashlik,” a Russian celebration of Halloween, and a handmade toy-making workshop. She said that it is through these events that they hope to foster an autonomous community among the students.

She also said it was important for them to have support with their schoolwork, whether that was tutoring from peers like Startsev or simply having a shared space for students to work together.

“I don’t need to be there because it’s happening among them,” Tytarenko said. “You don’t have to supervise or control it. You just have to provide the space and give the students the opportunity to come somewhere and connect. ”

Tytarenko said the Russian Club aims to provide a positive environment for students, bringing together Russian-born students with other students interested in learning more about Russian history.

The exchange goes both ways, however, and Startsev said he has learned from the experience as well.

“The vision is just to share the culture,” said Startsev. “The Russian Club is where you share your experience of learning about Russian culture and learning about American culture.”

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