Student body presidents representing U.S. colleges and universities across the United States went to Russia in November to meet their counterparts in what many officials and academics hope will be the first of many such exchanges in coming years.
It was the first fully funded program sponsored by a Russian governmental agency to bring American students to Moscow under the auspices of the U.S.-Russia Bilateral Presidential Commission’s Education, Culture and Sports Working Group.
The Russians sought to “identify the future leaders of America and acquaint them with Russian culture,” according to Chang Suh, director of the Open World Leadership Center, who assisted in organizing the visit that included meetings with prominent Russian government and business leaders. Recognizing that several former presidents of the United States were once college student body presidents — including Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton — the Russians wanted those who might be future leaders to visit Russia now, Suh told America.gov.
“The president of the student community in U.S. universities [is] not only an influential figure, but also promising,” the Russian newspaper Izvetsia wrote November 19 about the American delegation. “They often form the core of the elite of American society.”
Mark Gul, the Bilateral Presidential Commission coordinator at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow, said he hopes that this will be the first of many exchanges of this type. It is “a great example of the spirit of partnership that has been made possible by the reset,” Gul said.
The commission, created in 2009 by Presidents Obama and Dmitry Medvedev, has established 18 working groups that seek new opportunities for partnerships and exchanges between the two countries to improve mutual understanding and cooperation.
The trip was sponsored by the Russian Ministry of Youth in cooperation with the U.S. Library of Congress’ Open World Leadership Center. The 15 student body presidents came from Amherst College, Barnard College, Columbia University, Dixie State College, Georgetown University, Harvard University, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Snow College, Stanford University, University of California at Berkeley, University of Colorado, University of Massachusetts, University of Minnesota, Utah Valley University, and Westminster College (Utah). They represent a diverse college population of more than a quarter of a million students from throughout the United States.
The trip sought to encourage civic engagement among students, leaders and citizens of the two countries. Their weeklong visit included meetings with Vladislav Surkov, President Medvedev’s first deputy chief of staff; Svetlana Zhurova, vice-speaker of the State Duma; Vladimir Slesarev, deputy chairman of the Supreme Commercial Court; and Vladimir Baranovsky, deputy director of the Institute of World Economy and International Relations (IMEMO).
The students also met with Viktor Vekselberg, president of the Skolkovo high-tech research and production hub (Russia’s “Silicon Valley”) and chairman of the board of the Renova Holding Group, representatives of Russia’s young innovators network “Futurussia,” and fellow student leaders from Moscow State Institute of International Relations (MGIMO), Moscow School of Political Studies, and the Bauman Moscow State Technical University.
After visiting the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and sessions with senior diplomats and Russian journalists, Georgetown University student president Calen Angert admitted,” I did not expect our Russian contacts to field our questions so directly. The acknowledgment and candid discourse during these meetings helped transform my view of Russia from a Cold War carryover to a developing democracy.”
Several of the students said the trip might have influenced their career paths. Utah Valley University student president Richard Portwood is beginning Russian language lessons, and Georgetown’s Angert is now considering working in Russia.
“While the possibility would not have been on my radar before this trip,” Angert told America.gov, “I can now see the immense opportunity there. The Russian market is quite viable, and I would certainly consider starting a business there someday.”
Added Portwood, “Our visit showed us the incredible potential for future U.S.-Russia collaboration.”
Following the trip, Vladislav Surkov said in an e-mail to Portwood, one of the student organizers, “Your willingness to maintain contacts is of great importance to us. We are prepared to do all we can for you to come to Russia more often and to regard our country as a platform for cooperation. Russia’s Federal Youth Agency and I personally will support all of your efforts and projects aimed at making both of our countries closer to each other.”
“Today’s young leaders will shape the future of U.S.-Russian relations,” UC-Berkeley student body president Noah Stern said. “Personal relationships, constant communication and a propensity for dialogue will ensure decades of effective partnership.”
(This is a product of the Bureau of International Information Programs, U.S. Department of State.