I realized during the filming of the video below that I was focused almost exclusively on our programming in the post-Soviet states, which has really been the core of our programming for nearly 25 years. Of course, with the Kremlin as a backdrop, this was a bit natural.
Ever since, I have felt the need to add a few words about our new locations (Poland and Cuba) and generally about our philosophy here at SRAS about adding locations. Rather than a new video, especially as I hope we will have those about each of these new locations in the near future, I will address this topic here, as it is one that is very exciting to me and one that we here at SRAS do discuss at various junctures.
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In this new video, SRAS founder Renee Stillings discusses how we build our programs around the resources and history of each location. More information about all our locations can be found here. More information on our programs can be found here.
In the video I speak quite a bit about the rationale behind our locations in the post-Soviet space. That really took us up to about 2014. And then we hit one of those critical junctures. I will backtrack briefly to say that when we are attending study abroad fairs and we see the long lines of students collecting information about Italy or Australia or many other locations that draw far more American students, we start thinking. Honestly fairs are not super for us – we are a bit niche. We need to talk to students, get them past what the media has to say about our locations. Thus we have time to think. And we think about how many students are really positive about their experiences with SRAS and how really a large number return for studies again either in the same or another SRAS location. Naturally we thought if we have more locations, we present them with more SRAS opportunities.
In 2014 we had Crimea. This caused a lot of commotion in our market of course, everybody starting to talk about where should they send students if for some reason they can’t go to Russia to study Russian. There was a bit of impetus for us to start thinking with a bit more urgency. I will underline that at no point did we rev up this thinking because we anticipated safety-related issues. We were concerned about bureaucratic issues – visas, funding restrictions, etc.
After some analysis and exploration we ultimately settled on Warsaw as our next location. I could go on at length as to our thought process, which began with the broad “go east or west” and ended with finding the right city and partner in Poland. That process did ultimately help us to define what we consider to be the SRAS footprint for the foreseeable future.
The SRAS Footprint
Berlin to Vladivostok. That is how we ultimately summarized it. Berlin, not because we are seeing to venture into Western Europe. Berlin because of its history and relationship to our core locations and areas of study – from Jewish studies to security, migration, and other global issues. Vladivostok as our toe-hold in the Asia-Pacific.
If to define ourselves in less “geographic” terms, we would likely describe our study destinations as non-traditional, and more often than not – misunderstood or misrepresented. Countries where our biggest challenge is the media, the biased or “nuanced” information that is out there. Countries where there is a dearth of information or mostly negative information. Locations you don’t see in movies, or hear about in popular culture. In a way, the lack of information is worse than negative information.
The SRAS Family of Sites seeks to counter this lack of information by challenging our students to write about the locations in which they are studying – on topics ranging from popular culture to geopolitics to life as a student. The natural “filter” our locations provide attracts the very students who can do this sort of exploration and writing.
Our primary study abroad cities are perhaps defined by the depth of possibilities, range of topics that can be supported in the many ways I describe in the video. Very high on our list is international relations, global issues of security, conflict, identity, environment. When are are able to add to that significant contributions to culture and/or science, it is a location of high interest to us as not only can we build a fuller experience, but we can attract SRAS alumni who are seeking more of what they experienced in other SRAS locations.
Cuba – An Outlier – or Not?
A few years ago we supported a faculty led program that brought students to Cuba and then St. Petersburg, Russia. After a few iterations, this program evolved into our Cuba-Russia: Studies in Cultural Diplomacy program. While outside our footprint, it nonetheless was in great part based in Russia. That being said, as this program has developed further, we have seen good reason to expand our programming in Cuba such that not all programs there may include time in Russia. Cuba falls into our footprint for all the non-geographic reasons. Topically it is rich – from international relations to environment to culture. And it is largely misunderstood.
SRAS is approaching its 25-year mark at a time when study abroad is filled with both opportunities and challenges. While our region has alway had its fair share of challenges simply due to politics and bureaucracy, I believe that increasingly, the opportunities outweigh the challenges. The greater challenges at this stage are about meeting the needs of an increasingly diverse student body, which we will address in a later blog posting.