ECU cancels Russia study abroad program

“It’s really disappointing that it isn’t able to happen this year,” ECU’s Justin Wilmes said. “It’s a lifelong memory for them.”
Published: Mar. 10, 2022 at 8:05 PM EST
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GREENVILLE, N.C. (WITN) - On a “white night,” in St. Petersburg, Russia, in 2019, a crowd gathered and listens to a street performer play the saxophone, with twinkling string lights overhead.

The scene is one of many that East Carolina University graduate student Aurora Venegas remembers of her study abroad trip in 2019.

“It’s called white nights in St. Petersburg because it’s daytime all the time,” Venegas said. “It will not be nighttime until like, 2 a.m.”

Venegas would have taken that trip again three years later, but with Russia still invading Ukraine, not many students signed up for the trip in summer 2022.

“We had to cancel the trip and it’s not quite as you might think, that we were all set to go and we canceled it because of the war in Ukraine,” Justin Wilmes said. “It was more that the trip didn’t enroll properly because people were apprehensive about potentially taking a trip to this part of the world where these things are going on.”

Wilmes, who’s an associate professor of Russian studies at ECU, expressed how disappointing it was to cancel.

“In the past, we’ve had them living with host families,” Wilmes said. “Speaking the language, seeing how Russians live, and really just getting an immersive experience. That was the goal of the trip. It really does, I think, open eyes for the students and it’s a lifelong memory for them.”

For ECU alum Anthony Comella, the 2019 trip was more than educational.

“It was definitely... learned a little bit deeper of various cultures and how Russians kind of truly act,” Comella said.

That insight kept Comella from judging, as not all Russians agree with everything that’s going on in Ukraine.

ECU Professor Dr. Richard Ericson said there are two different perceptions in Russia.

“There’s the perception that is generated by the massive media campaign of the Russian state and its military-style censorship of anything that provides an alternative view,” Ericson said. “But that is being countered by social media, various kinds of indirect links, and active campaigns by Ukraine to put out the other side of the story. And the portion of the population that can get to that understands that it’s out there and sees it is increasingly dissatisfied with the way things are going.”

This “dismay” is something that Venegas heard firsthand from students in St. Petersburg, a major city Ericson said has better contact with the rest of the world.

“I am actually terrified for them,” Venegas said. “Because we were at St. Petersburg, and you see on the news that there are protests in St. Petersburg, and I worry cause they get arrested. You know, Russia does not like protesting or anything so they censor… I don’t want anything bad to happen to them. Most of them do not support this war at all.”

Seeing how much students have gained from the study abroad program, Wilmes said how important it is to connect with people across the world.

“Part of the reason that going to a country like Russia is so special, is... this sort of cultural diplomacy that I mentioned before, where you’re getting beyond political headlines, things like that, and actually making connections between people,” Wilmes said.

Wilmes said he’s still open to the idea of continuing the program depending on how things are in the future, but should they have to consider other places for the study abroad program, Wilmes said they’d consider Kazakhstan, Ukraine if things improve, or Baltic countries such as Estonia, or Georgia as another option.

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