On a typical evening, I pour a cup of coffee and follow the contours of the counter until I reach a cash register. I pay by meal card, and walk back to the dorm lobby where one of my students is waiting. We have a study session tonight, and my job is to explain how to use comparative forms of Russian adjectives. If this sounds like an everyday routine for a Fulbright Foreign Language Teaching Assistant (FLTA), it is. Unless, of course, the teaching assistant is blind, and traveled to the United States from Russia for the first time on the U.S. Department of State’s Fulbright program.
I never imagined in my wildest dreams that I would someday teach Russian and share my culture with students in the United States. Soon after graduating from Pomor State University in Arkhangelsk, Russia, I read an announcement on a bulletin board which sparked my curiosity. The announcement invited students and professionals to apply for Fulbright programs in the United States. The idea of sharing my culture in another country sounded both interesting and exciting.
I visited the website and decided that the FLTA program would be most beneficial to my future career as an English and German teacher. According to the program guidelines, teaching assistants can take up to four non-credit courses at a U.S. university while teaching their languages as native speakers.
Most importantly, the program description stated that U.S. Department of State exchange programs do not discriminate based on disability.
I made some inquiries and decided to apply. The Moscow Fulbright staff provided me with an assistant to take the TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language), and covered the travel and hotel expenses of a sighted guide during my interview in Moscow. During the long wait between the time I applied and was selected, I put aside the idea of participating. It was like lightning striking when I received a placement offer from Michigan State University (MSU).
The week that followed was one of the most difficult of my life. I had a strong desire to experience a new culture and embark on a new life. However, I knew that everything would be completely different from what I was used to. How fast would I be able to enhance my independent living skills in an English-speaking country? How would I adapt to my new surroundings? Would I be successful in my work and have a social life on campus? These are just a few of the many questions I had to address before I accepted the appointment at MSU.
Before I left Russia, my future supervisor at MSU and staff from the MSU Resource Center for Persons with Disabilities (RCPD) emailed to ask what types of assistance and assistive technology I would need. Soon, it was time to depart for the United States. I had never traveled without a sighted person before, but from the moment my plane landed in Lansing, Michigan, I was surrounded by people ready to offer assistance.
I was provided with a laptop, screen reading software and access to high speed Internet, all of which allows me to work and study effectively. Over the next few weeks, I received orientation and mobility training from RCPD specialists. I learned some new techniques for using a white cane, and the staff helped me to master the most important routes around campus.
At first, having lunch in the cafeteria was a nerve-racking experience. Volunteers showed me the location of counters, refrigerators and tables over and over again. In just two weeks, I felt comfortable in my dorm and could walk independently to the library, bookstore and other buildings on campus. I was able to walk independently only inside buildings.
The ability to walk around the MSU campus independently has given me a new feeling of freedom and confidence that I can accomplish anything.
“Let me find another sentence similar to this one,” my student says, as she reads through her notes. Sipping coffee, I realize how challenging it is for non-native speakers to learn Russian. I enjoy helping my students and try my best to inspire them to work hard. In my experience, communicating with a native speaker is pivotal to effective language acquisition and the best way to become fluent. I’m able to facilitate language learning for my students because some features of Russian are easier to explain from a native speaker’s perspective. In return, as a Fulbright FLTA, I have a wonderful opportunity to improve my teaching skills by identifying and choosing new teaching methods.
The Fulbright FLTA program has additional benefits, such as the opportunity to improve your own English language skills and take classes. When I first arrived in the United States, I was a bit perplexed by American English, and it took some time before I was no longer anxious about my language skills. I have benefited from other courses while at MSU, including a course on teaching language methods and a jazz history class.
I know I made the right decision when I applied to the Fulbright FLTA program. The U.S. government gave me a chance to improve my teaching and independent living skills and to experience a new culture.
As a person with a disability, I am also able to compare and contrast attitudes towards people with disabilities in Russia and the United States. In Russia, there are still many prevailing stereotypes regarding people with disabilities. Some people still don’t realize that people with visual impairments have the same rights as people without disabilities, and can be successful academically, professionally and personally. The last ten years have witnessed a great shift from total lack of awareness of disability-related issues to an acknowledgment of the importance of these questions. But we still have a long way to go.
As a student in Russia, I had a chance to visit several European countries as a participant in international student cooperation projects, music contests and festivals. During these visits, I saw how people in Europe approach disability-related issues, and how disabled students and professionals are fully involved in society. While in the U.S., I have had a chance to examine these issues even more thoroughly. I plan to bring this new knowledge to my home country so that we can increase opportunities for people with disabilities in Russia and end stereotypes.