History Comes Alive for American Students Touring Soviet Union

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A group of 25 American high school students last month got a history lesson more vivid than any they had bargained for.

In the Soviet Union for a three-week exchange program, they went to Moscow for a routine tour and instead found themselves watching citizens rise up against a coup.

"They had to go through checkpoints. They saw tanks on the streets. They saw crowds. Nobody was working," said Scott D. Ramey, a spokesman for AFS Intercultural Programs, which had sent the students abroad.

"It is the kind of thing," he said, "that is etched in your memory for a lifetime."

The middle of a coup "may not have been the optimum situation" for U.S. teenagers to be in, Mr. Rarney acknowledged.

But the profound upheaval shaking Russia and the other Soviet republics following last month's failed coup appears to have drawn hundreds of other American students toward the Soviet Union and the exchange programs that can get them there.

Officials of international-exchange programs said last week that they had been swamped with phone calls from educators and students who, far from being frightened off by the turmoil in the Soviet Union, want instead to travel there to watch history being made.

"They really are eager to go and see for themselves," said Marisa Sherard, acting director of the international school-partnerships program of the National Association of Secondary School Principals.

"The phones have been ringing off the hook here," added Lea Fried, who directs elementary- and secondary-school exchange programs for the New York City-based Citizen Exchange Council. "I think people are excited."

'Never in Any Danger'

When they learned on Aug. 19 of the hard-line coup against President Mikhail S. Gorbachev, many high school-exchange officials responded by seeking to rush their students out of the Soviet Union.

With the U.S. State Department warning that Americans "should consider departing the country as soon as they safely can," the Youth For Understanding International Exchange made arrangements to gather its 12 American high-school students who had been living in Moscow and send them to Finland.

Other programs flew their students back to the United States.

Mr. Ramey of AFS Intercultural Programs said he had been misinformed by his Russian counterparts that their American students would cancel sightseeing and stay indoors. He noted, however, that the students "were never in danger of any kind" and flew home the next day.

In the United States, meanwhile, plans to send exchange groups to the Soviet Union were postponed, and many American families that were hosting Soviet students here offered to let them extend their stays.

When the coup leaders within days backed down in the face of the democratic resistance and divisions within their own ranks, the exchange programs soon returned to normal. Youth For Understanding brought most of its students back from Finland, and exchange groups proceeded with plans to send students to the Soviet Union.

Exchange-program officials appeared optimistic last week about the futures of their programs.

"We are proceeding full speed ahead, watching carefully what the State Department is advising," said Ruth M. Abramson, director of counseling services for Youth For Understanding.

"We think this is a more important time than ever to be in the Soviet Union," Mr. Ramey said, "particularly when you look at the Soviet Union and their need for contact with the outside world."

Stephany B. Dickey, a senior program coordinator for the Citizen Exchange Council, said her organization's programs that send American teachers to the Soviet Union "will be extremely important right now" because "schools, especially in the republics, are beginning to run their own show. They are looking to American schools and American teachers for ideas."

Even with the prospect of continuing instability and the collapse of the Soviet Union as now constituted, exchange-program administrators assert they are confident that the American teachers and students there will remain safe.

"With a home-stay program like ours," Ms. Abramson said, 'the students are part of the fabric of the community and are protected as such. You are not an American exchange student so much as a person who happens to be living with this family."

Dealing With New Countries?

The events in the Soviet Union have posed some interesting logistical questions for exchange programs, however.

"Will we be running programs with five countries that were once the Soviet Union?" Mr. Ramey asked. "We are watching the independence movements as closely as anything for that reason."

Ms. Dickey questioned whether the focus of the Citizen Exchange Council's Soviet exchange programs would continue to be on the language and politics of Russia.

Many of the C.E.C. programs, Ms. Fried noted, have been run in cooperation with local education reformers in the outlying republics. Now, she said, several of those education reformers have emerged as political reformers and leaders.

Vol. 11, Issue 01, Page 27

Published in Print: September 4, 1991, as History Comes Alive for American Students Touring Soviet Union
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