Shuffling against the wooden chair, Teresa Gruber peered at the next seat over. Beside her sat Lauren Isaacson, a student of the Phillips Exeter Summer Academy.
“I didn’t know much about Russia before this,” said Lauren. “Not unless you count the generic stereotypes you see online about hackers and spies!”
Despite being tired from the two-hour drive from Boston to Exeter, Lauren beamed at the prospect of meeting new people. More specifically, the bridging of different cultures.
“Teresa is the first person who lives in Russia that I’ve ever met, and thinking about it now, I really didn’t know much about Russia besides what the media portrayed,” said Lauren, motioning to the girl beside her.
Born and raised in Boston, Massachusetts, Lauren had a vague impression of Russia. These impressions, combined with misleading representations in the media and the rocky history between the U.S. and Russia, accumulated into an exaggerated portrayal.
During the Cold War, the relations between the U.S. and Russia had never been worse. An intense determination to either destroy or contain communism and anti-Soviet Union propaganda dominated American media, and Russia was equally antagonistic toward America. Influenced by the libels, the mistrust of the two countries snowballed, fabricating false stereotypes that are still seen today.
In spite of being raised in Moscow, 4,483 miles away from Boston, Teresa had opinions similar to Lauren’s. Exhausted from the seven-hour time difference, Teresa leaned back against her chair, pondering the background of Russia and America’s relationship.
“Ever since the Cold War, the relations between the U.S. and Russia have only gone increasingly worse, but I didn’t have any of that in mind when approaching Lauren.”
Despite the complex history of tension between the two countries, neither of their opinions of the other changed upon learning their ethnicity.
“It wouldn’t have dictated our friendship either way,” said Lauren. “My opinions didn’t change after finding out where she was from.”
Both girls, mature and understanding enough to disregard their countries’ rocky relationship, benefited from learning about the other. By acting as a beacon for people from all over the globe, this summer course can not only form international relationships but also provide a cultural lesson to others. By forgiving and forgetting, and letting bygones be bygones, the two friends have taught each other about their lifestyles and how it differs.
When asked about Boston culture, Lauren replied with a simple sentence: “Sports-obsessed, duck tours, and the LGBT community.” Home to the WWII styled vehicles that tour the landmarks of Boston, an annual LGBT pride parade, and a plethora of passionate sports fans, Boston culture poses a stark contrast to Russian culture. With a prominent history in arts, Russian culture comprises alluring philosophy, graceful ballerinas and a distinctive style of architecture, with Byzantine features and decorated arches.
With this contrast in culture in mind, the two appear to get along well. Bonding over funny anecdotes and life stories, the two girls discovered that they weren’t so different after all.
However, this is not the case for all opposing-nation students. Lounging in her chair, Elsa Khokhar spoke about the issues and hardships of being from Pakistan in a summer course like Exeter.
“I consider myself to be friendly and open-minded,” said Elsa. “But not everyone is as tolerant.”
She recounted an experience during another international camp, in which a girl from India tormented her. Upon finding out that Elsa was from Pakistan, the girl grew antagonistic due to their countries’s troublesome history. Plagued by hostility and distrust, India and Pakistan have an incredibly complex history, including, but not limited to, four wars, military conflict, and issues with the border Kashmir. With no wall between them, India and Pakistan have clashed violently over Kashmir. Just this year, 5 civilians were killed in cross-border fire.
“I see it all over the news,” said Elsa. “Once, a man accidentally stepped into India across the border and was arrested for 20 years!”
Yet, this new generation of students is much more neutral and unprejudiced than their predecessors. Much like Lauren and Teresa, Elsa was willing to excuse and overlook the mistakes of her country’s past.
“I try to ignore where [classmates] are from and pay more attention to their personality,” said Elsa. “If I get an opportunity like this to meet people from all over the world, perhaps we could open up to each other and maybe forgive and forget.”
This is the same case for access students Anna Shatalova and Alexandra Korovkina, respectively from Ukraine and Russia. Starting in February 2014, Russia, using military intervention, gained control of Ukrainian territory of Crimea. Since then, there has been an ongoing military conflict in the Donbass region of Ukraine. In spite of this, both Anna and Alexandra had mature views on what this meant for their friendship.
“[Russia-Ukraine relations] didn’t affect my opinion of Alexandra,” said Anna. “Just because their government decided to intervene violently, doesn’t mean that all Russian people have the same mentality.”
Alexandra agreed with the sentiment, both of them allowing each other to personally represent themselves.
“You can’t judge the citizens by the actions of their government,” said Alexandra.
The most interesting aspect of their friendship is how Alexandra’s family was affected, and how that played no role in their relationship whatsoever. During the Russian military interventions, her grandparents’ house got caught in the cross-fire and was consequently bombed. “It doesn’t matter if your country is fighting,” said Alexandra. “What truly matters are the people themselves, and if that person has the same interests as you.”
However, when asked about any pre-existing notions or false beliefs, Alexandra said that the overall stereotypes of Ukrainians in Russia were that they were sly and dishonest. “Someone you don’t want to be friends with,” said Alexandra. Because they had a chance to properly meet, away from their war-torn countries, they were able to discredit these stereotypes.
“Exeter can bring people together,” said Anna. “You can change your opinions about the generalizations we see in the media.”
Clearly, diversity pervades the campus. Everywhere you go, a student with an intriguing background appears, be it from Turkey, Germany or even Greece. In just five short weeks, the summer course provides an opportunity to meet students from all over the world. With the relaxed environment, it is easy for students to bond. Away from home and the comfortable confines of home, there is a strong need to get through the unfamiliarity of the new environment. This need, paired with the friendly students, fosters a strong sense of community.
With the chance to meet foreign students abroad, both Teresa and Lauren were fascinated to discover the different lifestyles present at the camp. Being exposed to new languages and customs, they were given a greater understanding and appreciation for each other. By providing the opportunity to meet students from different backgrounds, Exeter summer academy creates long-lasting friendships and provides a cultural immersion for all students, regardless of race and ethnicity. Despite the problematic relationship between Russia and the USA, summer courses unite people from two completely different and often opposing backgrounds.
As Teresa and Lauren talked, the setting sun reflected off their faces as it dipped below the horizon. The fleeting colors of pink and orange signified an end to a day, and soon, the start of many more friendships.