SRAS: 25 Years of Innovation

by Renee Stillings, SRAS

Editor's note: This article originally appeared in the August 2021 issue of NewsNet.

When asked by ASEEES to contribute an article addressing study abroad and COVID, I took some time to think about how best to approach this subject. In part, I wanted to put it in the context of the 25th anniversary of SRAS, kicking off this month. I realized that COVID has been one flashpoint among many in our 25-year history. A big one, no doubt, but there are other events that have impacted study abroad in our region, the growth and direction of SRAS, and the field in general.

I also cannot pass up the opportunity to thank the many people who have made SRAS what it is today. To those teaching Russian and other subjects with a focus on our region: thank you for providing advice and feedback, sending or bringing students to us, and supporting our efforts in various ways. We thank ASEEES, AATSEEL, and other organizations that bring us all together to share ideas. We are looking forward to seeing everybody in person again. I thank our partners overseas; they have not only weathered this latest storm but have continued to adapt and innovate together with us. And most of all, a big shout out to my colleagues at SRAS. We are a pretty small organization at the core, but we do a lot. This is due to the tremendous efforts and dedication of the incredible people with whom I work.

All of this—the people, places, ideas, the numerous flashpoints affecting our region and/or the globe, and our flexibility as a small organization—has resulted in a steady stream of innovation that we have come to regard as the “essence” of SRAS.

Study Abroad
If there is a single constant for us, it is the shadow of the Cold War cast over our core study sites. These are generally not the locations that most students consider when planning their study abroad experiences. Their parents are just as likely to think negatively of these locations and consider them to be dangerous.

One thing that makes our locations so effective in broadening worldviews is the surprise that many students have when first arriving. The modern, green cities, full of friendly people and bustling with culture, business, and great food do not align with expectations.

“I was incredibly impressed with Russia, and had a fantastic time! Russia was very different from what I expected but that is always good in my book: if it were what I expected then I wouldn’t learn anything, right?” - J. Miller (SRAS Student)

The world suddenly seems larger and filled with so much more possibility. If we were wrong in our preconceptions of this place, where else could we be wrong? If these cities have changed this much since the 1990s, what is the real potential of our own cities? 

Ironically, one of our great challenges is thus one of our best selling points. 

Historically, our locations have also attracted mostly language students, meaning that our niche market operates within an even narrower niche. SRAS has always worked to overcome this by designing our language programs to reach the full spectrum of language learners—from complete beginners to advanced heritage speakers—while adding subject courses to attract students of international relations, environment, art, and more. 

We’ve worked to encourage students to venture beyond Russia’s well-known capitals of Moscow and St. Petersburg to the fascinating (and immersive!) regional centers of Irkutsk and Vladivostok. We also expanded to locations outside of Russia where Russian is still commonly spoken, to Bishkek and Kyiv, and provide still more valuable subject matter along with language and cultural immersion. 

When an earlier flashpoint, Crimea, occurred before COVID, we moved to open our program in Warsaw, developing our focus on security studies in the region. 

The addition of Cuba to our lineup in 2018, as a fascinating case study in cultural diplomacy, looks to have come just before what may be another great flashpoint in a swell of democratic activism in that island state. 

A Brave New Online World
The impact of COVID on study abroad and on SRAS is far-reaching. There was the rush to bring students home and the need to transition quickly to online studies so that they could complete their semesters while attending classes across multiple time zones. Then we found ourselves unable to send students abroad for more than a year. However, I think we were not alone in deciding to use this “down time” to organize systems and plan for the next term and what seemed like perhaps a new era in study abroad. 

What happened, of course, could hardly be called “down time.” We found ourselves busier than ever, entering the online world, developing classroom support services, overhauling all six (!) members of our Family of Sites, meeting the increasing demand for remote work in archives, and developing an app that had been lingering when we had been otherwise occupied with our “regular” work.
We expect many of these new virtual services will fill more than a temporary need. Classrooms will continue to benefit from this now seamless integration of technology, allowing direct “connection” to the country and people they are studying. The study abroad industry in general is embracing more pre-departure online sessions, allowing students to meet their hosts abroad in advance, ask questions, even start in on some aspects of their courses. Students will be better prepared to hit the ground running. 

We are also approaching our program design with online possibilities in mind. Many of our subject courses will benefit from access to a broader range of guest speakers, not limited by location. We are already implementing this in our Kyiv-based programs and we are excited to extend this approach to other courses.

Interestingly, it is obvious that this could have been done before, but now we’ve had time to develop the ideas and the market is much more receptive to the “new normal.” 

Reaching New Students
Not all students can take a full summer or semester abroad. We now offer a summer option to add 2-4 weeks of online work with our instructors and peer tutors abroad before arrival in country. We use this to ramp up both language learning and engagement with the country and to allow for a more intensive study and cultural experience abroad. 

Outside of study abroad, we are finding new ways to advance one of our key passions: simply sharing language and culture with others. 

We are pleased to find steadily increasing interest in our online courses and workshops. Efforts to maintain a connection between our students and our partners abroad has evolved into a steady offering of online language courses, conversation practice, and, perhaps most importantly, live-stream events to keep students and educators engaged with our region. 

Our live-stream events have proven highly successful in attracting an audience of not only traditional students, but also educators, retirees, and other professionals. We’ve been joined by many people with an interest in our area, especially as they sought ways to get out of the house and experience something new and exciting, if only virtually. 

We’ve taken our audience “abroad” for museum visits, city tours, chess lessons, a conversation with a cosmonaut, and much more. Many of these live-stream events were offered for free, some as affordable online classes, and others were requested to match class or other event times. We look forward to continuing with a full schedule of live-stream events over the coming year and we encourage all to join, invite your students, and take advantage of this opportunity to engage your classroom with the region.

Study Abroad - More Important than Ever
We look forward to a fuller return to study abroad in 2022. It is not without some trepidation, however, as all indications are that we will have both a surge in demand and some continuing challenges related to COVID. 
We are spending considerable time tracking the ever-evolving rules and regulations on every level and providing updates in ways that are shareable with students, faculty, and study abroad offices. 

While the situation should stabilize in the coming months, we are all left with the understanding that we must plan ahead. Most of us in education and study abroad reacted with remarkable speed and success, all things considered, in March 2020, but there was a cost. We need to be prepared to respond quickly in the future to unforeseen events, with minimal disruption and cost to all involved.
We are happy to see that our partners and colleagues are working on this just as we are: developing questionnaires, information and communication management systems, and generally designing ways to ensure that students also consider contingency plans well ahead of time.  

We face additional challenges in our region, namely the worsening relations between the US and Russia. Politicization of, for example, State Department threat levels, especially when we rely on such metrics more than ever, and the general rhetoric about the “dangers” of visiting Russia are blocking the very cultural and person-to-person diplomacy we need. It eliminates much of the funding for study abroad to Russia, effectively discouraging study of our region, and severely hindering the development of experts that we need. 

Without direct contact, we become even more dependent on the media and stereotypes.

In many ways, COVID is the easier challenge to overcome. There are vaccines. We do not have vaccines for disinformation or for a lack of knowledge or baseless preconceptions. We can only travel and see with our own eyes, and in so doing, grow as people, students, and citizens. 

Looking Ahead
While the return to study abroad in our region is filled with challenges, it was filled with them well before COVID. Nonetheless, in thinking about the future of education, of study abroad, and of our region we are excited by the possibilities, many of which are already realities. We know what we need to do and we now have many more tools at our disposal, both on and offline.

Renee Stillings is the Founder and Program Director of SRAS. She embarked on her own study abroad experience immediately after graduation in 1990 (B.S., Biomedical Engineering, Boston University), spent 5+ years living in Moscow, eventually founding SRAS. She continues to travel the world, always collecting ideas for program design, experiential learning, and other ways to develop and enhance the study abroad experience.