Bradley Gorski holds a degree in Russian from Georgetown University. Since graduation he has been living in St. Petersburg and Moscow, Russia, working as the Russia Country Coordinator for EducationUSA. He plans to apply for Ph.D. programs in Slavic Studies to start fall 2011. His research interests are Nabokov, post-Soviet literature and the interplay between linguistics and literature.
SRAS: You have now spent considerable time working and studying in Russia and hold a degree in Russian Studies. What first got you interested in the Russia and the Russian language?
Bradley Gorski: I have a story that I tell: I grew up in Spokane, Washington, where the major minority group is Russian-speaking immigrants. In high school I tutored remedial English and many of my students were Russian speakers. All of that is true, but I think my interest in Russia and Russian first came earlier with my discovery of Russian literature.
SRAS: So was there a particular author or novel that hooked you?
BG: The first Russian novel I read was Anna Karenina, but it was really the gauntlet that Nabokov throws down in his afterword to Lolitathat convinced me learn Russian and delve deeper into the language and culture.
SRAS: You now work for EducationUSA in Moscow, a program affiliated with the US Department of State. Can you tell us a bit about what you do for them, how you landed that job, and how essential your Russian skills are in performing your duties there?
BG: Of course. EducationUSA is a world-wide network of advising centers for international students who want to study in the US. The network is funded by the US Department of State, and throughout Russia at least, our services are free for students. Our offices are basically like high school guidance counselors for international students, except we work with students applying for undergraduate as well as graduate programs. I work as the Russia Country Coordinator, which means that I coordinate the efforts of the 14 advising centers in Russia.
Aside from day-to-day considerations like budgets, book buying, and bureaucracy my two major goals are: (1) facilitate communication between the centers so that all 14 Russian centers run on the same basic calendar, work towards the same goals, and provide students with a reliable and predictable level of quality, kind of like brand or franchise management; and (2) make EducationUSA services more useful for the Russian student. This second goal can be difficult. As an American who grew up in the US, I knew, almost from osmosis, the whole process of applying to universities: the SAT, the essay, letters of recommendation, January deadlines, applying to more than one school at the same time. The Russian system is different, so Russians grow up with different expectations. Part of our job at EducationUSA is helping Russians through a process that might seem relatively obvious to Americans.
I love my job. It’s both challenging and rewarding. It allows me a level of creativity and freedom that most jobs do not. It forces me to use my Russian practically all day every day – I speak with our students in English, but with our advisers, university administrators, and school officials only in Russian. I recently moderated a panel on exchange programs between Russia and the US in Russian. And I get to travel all the time – all around Russia and to the US and Europe. I consider myself extraordinarily lucky to have this position.
As with most good jobs, this is not my first in the organization. That organization is American Councils for International Education, which administers EducationUSA in Russia. My first experience with American Councils came as a junior in college when I studied in Moscow on their program. After finishing school, I studied on the Flagship program in St. Petersburg, also through American Councils, then worked as a Resident Director for a summer program at MGU, then as a recruiter for the FLEX high school exchange program. During my time on the FLEX program, this job opened up. I applied, interviewed, and got the job. My luck still amazes me.
SRAS: Of the Russian students you work with, what are most hoping to gain, long-term, from studying abroad in America?
BG: Honestly, the majority of the students I work with are looking to gain a world-class education. A lot of our students are Ph.D. candidate scientists looking to work in specific labs with specific professors. Others have broader aspirations. But almost all are focused on developing the skills that will help them in future careers. Fewer of our students are looking primarily for an “international experience,” or hoping to “broaden their horizons.” I think everyone, even the chemical engineers and computer scientists, end up getting a lot out of the cultural experience, even if that’s not the reason they originally come to us.
SRAS: You spent a year in St. Petersburg studying Russian on the National Language Flagship Program, part of the Boren Awards program. Can you tell us a bit how you applied for and received that funding?
BG: Sure. The application packet for both the program and the funding is online. It looks a lot like graduate school applications – statement of purpose, three letters of recommendation – only instead of GRE scores, they want an essay written in Russian. After my application was complete, I was asked to take a short online Russian grammar test. Those who passed that (about 50% of applicants, I was told) were invited for a phone interview. A few weeks later I was informed that I was admitted to the program, but not granted the funding. It was like being admitted to a university without any financial aid. But, to my surprise a few weeks later, the program administrators, American Councils, told me that they had found alternate funding for me through the Fulbright-Hays program. I learned that the NSEP funding, for which I had applied, was only one of the federal grants funding this program.
RAS: You’ve also helped fund some of your time abroad by working as an English teacher in Moscow and St. Petersburg. Did you work for a school, or were you freelance? How did break into English teaching and what did you think of the experience in terms of what you learned and earned?
BG: I worked primarily for schools. I started in boom times, before the crisis, when native English was the only credential you needed to get a job just about anywhere. Though, even now, with a little bit of experience, it’s not hard to find work. My first job, in Moscow, came on a recommendation from a friend. I applied, interviewed, did a mock lesson, and started all in the span of three days. When I found myself in St. Petersburg and in need of funds, I just cold called schools I found on a yandex.ru search. I interviewed at three schools, got two job offers and took one, all in a week’s time. The job was at a small, friendly school called New Planet right off of Ploshchad’ vosstaniia.
I really enjoyed teaching English. I had taught before, but this subject matter gave me the opportunity to understand the English language in ways native speakers don’t usually get to think about – things like when and why we use present simple (“Russians use articles incorrectly.”) vs. present progressive (“Ilya’s having trouble understanding why we say ‘thefuture,’ when it is by nature indefinite…”). But even though I enjoyed it, I didn’t want to keep teaching for too long. There isn’t much room for growth in the field. You’re either teaching fewer hours, or you’re teaching more hours. And I didn’t have a side project like I know a lot of teachers do. So I soon looked around for something new.
SRAS: You’ve also recently published an academic paper you wrote while still a student at Georgetown University. The journal you published it with, SRAS’s student journal, Vestnik, has a fairly intensive editorial process. Can you comment on the experience? Did you consider it valuable and did you enjoy it?
BG: Yeah, going through Vestnik‘s editorial process was definitely a worthwhile experience. I saw the call for papers on the SEELANGS listserv, and submitted part of my senior thesis. The first round of edits came from Josh Wilson, the editor, and caused me to change the wording in several paragraphs and even to rethink some methodology. The next round of edits came from the editorial board at Vestnik and looked a lot more like copy edits. It forced me to reexamine the work, and to reconfigure it for a slightly different audience than my original thesis committee.
SRAS: Russia is always great for building a repertoire of stories – what has been your most memorable experience in Russia?
BG: Russia has plenty of cultural incongruities that trip you up when you least expect them like uneven cracks in nighttime pavement. I’ve been hit by old ladies in the metro, and hit on by younger ones. I accidentally accused a host mom of starving her dog. I’ve offended coworkers and classmates with infelicitous turns of phrase, unintentionally ordered sweet and sour chicken hearts and horsemeat soup, and confessed to the police to disabling my host family’s alarm system. But what really sticks with me is the trip I took to Kazan to recruit for the FLEX program. FLEX is a high school exchange program sponsored by the US Department of State that sends about 1,000 kids from all over the former Soviet Union to study in US public high schools and live with US host families for an academic year. I worked as a recruiter for the program for a season. Kazan was our biggest site. Over 700 students showed up the first day to test for the opportunity to participate in the program. We moved them all through a fifteen question test on basic English and corrected all the tests at a feverish pace. The top 30% of test takers would move on to the next round. After we had made the cut and typed out more than two hundred Russian and Tatar names, I took the printed list to the front doors of the school. I could hear the crowd from inside, and when I opened the door, I was thronged with eager students and parents who couldn’t wait to see the list. Not only the candidates, but also their friends and relatives had come down to the school to see if they might not have the opportunity to go the US and experience life and school in a different country.
SRAS: What advice would you offer to students hoping to study or work abroad?
BG: Do it. Take the plunge. It’ll work out. You’ll need to get a few things set up from home. You should get visa support from a reputable school or employer. Short of that, you can buy a 3-month business visa to get you started. Then you should set up a place to stay for at least the first few nights while you go apartment hunting. I would suggest that you have at least $2,000, but better $3,000, saved up to get you started. Once you get over here, scour expat.ru and redtape.ru for living and employment opportunities, and work every connection you have. Intercultural experiences are all about expanding your comfort zone, so you should be excited, of course, but it’s probably good if you’re a little bit terrified too. This is how you grow. You get nervous and excited about a new experience, read up on it, prepare, and find out it’s not as terrifying as you expected it to be. Then, what was once nerve-wracking and incomprehensible becomes part of your comfort zone, becomes an area you can navigate with familiarity and ease.