Country roads, take me home
Alexandra Grishina, YEAR program (2016-2017) Alumna, spent her sophomore year in the heart of Appalachia, at West Virginia University. She shared the emotions she has when recalls an unforgettable and motivating year in the United States of America. Alexandra has recently graduated in International Journalism from MGIMO University and now works at «Teach for Russia» educational program. She is always looking for something new, interesting and inspiring in life for and definitely knows how to inspire others!
It’s been 30 months already. 30 months since the day I got back. When I think about it, I cannot help but feel a short pang of — what is it? — a sense of time, probably. It has a manner of occurring without any prior notice. It was May 6 — which means that 2,5 years ago we woke up very early in Morgantown, West Virginia, silently put our heavy suitcases in a minivan under chilly morning drizzle, — and set off. We left West Virginia University, Morgantown and the States.
I remember the first of cherished moments I had in Moscow. It was the Map — the most perfect map my dear friend could bring along on my first Moscow morning. She managed to forgive my jet-lag tardiness, my overall unreadiness to face the reality and speak Russian again; moreover, she brought a welcome-home pack. And the Map, which remains over my bed to this day.
The Map depicts the top of the world, the North Pole — the only angle at which Russia and the United States are the closest to each other. Here they are, the two neighbors, separated by the Bering Strait. Alexandra Land is also there, in between the two worlds — though still Russian in its essence.
I watch this Map every time I go to sleep.
One March evening I got a long-awaited letter starting with: «It is our greatest pleasure to inform you…». Having reread it several times, I nearly learned it by heart. After such an overture there broke out a crescendo. It took the shape of eight pages of the Medical Form, more than exciting university allocation, 29 sincere «No» in the J-1 Visa Application background section, one unforgiving prohibition of taking any buckwheat on board, my fierce attempts not to include Elementary Astronomy or Horseback Riding in my already tight academic schedule, several attempts to find a bank of the less frustrating exchange rate — and, finally, a take-off.
To be frank, I never wanted to imagine anything beforehand. Never wanted to envision what my life would become across the ocean and seven clock hands back. What I truly wanted was to be up and ready for any adventure that awaited for me there — not to stage them in my head and then face the reality.
West Virginia — which is, according to John Denver’s song, is «almost heaven» — became my new home. The one and only of all American states which is entirely located in Appalachia; officially the poorest state in the country; a very specific micro-culture, basically unknown to even Americans themselves. West Virginia is shaped by mountain chains and flows in rivers and waterfalls.
Confederate flags all around, the above-mentioned John Denver’s song on constant replay — and only a few hours of driving to Washington, New York and any other gems of the East Coast. West Virginia is a perfect location for an exchange student: it allows to experience deeply the authentic «rural America» — and travel as often as you want in the meantime. Frequent and long breaks allow to do so and send on your itchy feet: I saw 21 states during my nine months of studies.
West Virginia University took my heart almost immediately. The American system of education, with its emphasis on practice, creativity, and critical thinking is absolutely incomparable to the orthodox frontal obsession with textbooks and lectures. The key feature of this system is self-education — and yes, these disciplines and motivates you more than anything else. The freedom goes hand in hand with responsibility: and here you are, with the schedule you composed (and recomposed, and recomposed) entirely on your own, with the professors you have carefully chosen to be your mentors for this semester, hurrying to your morning class with freshly printed academic paper — and appearing there 10 minutes ahead, already our of your new habit. American class ambience is comparable to none: here you explore, you analyze, you question and discuss. You may question even your professor’s opinion — and be sure, your professor will be more than interested to hear your point of view. For this is a healthy academic atmosphere, where questions are not simply allowed, but needed like air.
My professors live in my memory till this day. We occasionally keep exchanging heartwarming letters and postcards. I send mine to Morgantown — for Professor Power, which devoted his academic life to Native American studies; to New Jersey — for Doctor Wilson, which allowed us to dive in his Dictatorship and Democratization course; to London — for Doctor Stewart, with whom we used to have a tea party every Thursday during his British Literature classes…
The separation with my Professor Raimondo was especially hard to comprehend and reconcile with. She was my own university, my own inspiration, a perfect embodiment of a Western journalist: a courageous and sincere story-teller who is professionally interested in life. Professor Raimondo revitalized my already fading interest in journalism, and showed me how to do it — for real. Raimondo’s class in International Journalism was a weekly opportunity to take off the shackles of stereotypes and cliches, to immerse ourselves into this diverse world we live in.
«I have experienced no greater hope for the future when walking into this class each week, witnessing each of you navigate — bravely, boldly, and with great sensitivity — cross-cultural complexities and personal insecurities in order to get beneath the surface and better understand «Other», — wrote Professor Raimondo on the day of our last class: «The willingness to expose one’s own vulnerability — in order to make possible for the next person to share their story — is, yes, a good journalism practice, but, in this moment, in this class, it was also, simply, elevated humanity. We went so many places inside one room with four walls. It’s all about this boundary-busting magic that can happen inside a classroom when people care».
Even after 2,5 years, my heart beats faster when I read these words.
Sometimes it does take you to cross the ocean to realize that you have made some damn right choices.
Going back was unquestionably the most difficult part of the journey. For this journey once used to seem never-ending. I remember very clearly the day when I understood that the number of the days left became two-digit. Back in Moscow, I was back only physically, still there in my mind — as an astronaut back on the Earth, trying to get used to the terrestrial gravitation.
It does not hurt anymore. I know how much this year has changed me — and I know I will be back. I only wish my «thank you» was big enough to fit in everyone who made that year possible.
(the picture is Sasha’s final bus trip to Morgantown, WV on May 3, 2017)
Posted By , 11 Oct 2019