In yesterday’s article, we talked about how the Russian/Ukrainian crisis is too often portrayed as a clash between the United States and an ascendant, muscular Russia, but how that isn’t the case. If you have students from that region, they aren’t seeing it as a clash of great powers, but something frightening and local, something happening to them, their homes, and their loved ones.
Of course, that is still the minority of your students. Most of them will get their news filtered through whatever flattening filter the media put on their lenses. All politics is local, and all coverage is inherently parochial; the Crimean standoff is covered through a lens of “U.S. vs. Russia”, a familiar-sounding showdown. This is an interesting angle, full of historical weight. But of all the dangers it brings, there is one that is very specific and very localized: what happens if you have an international student from Russia? What happens when suddenly, based on events out of their control and thousands of miles away, one of your students is perceived as “the enemy”? What is a teacher to do when geopolitics marches uninvited into their classroom?
From Russia with…not love
This particular situation is a strange case. It isn’t a shooting war between the US and Russia, and, in theory, the US doesn’t actually have to do anything. That isn’t the case in practice, given a raft of Western interests, but this isn’t a hot war where Americans are going to be on the front lines. However, the “enemy” on the other side of the table is Russia, America’s primary foe in the 20th century (it was the Soviet Union, but very few people held anything against Lithuanians or Kazakhs). The Cold War has become such a large part of the American identity that high schoolers born after the Berlin Wall fell and Yeltsin stood on tanks in Red Square still identify Russia as, if not a direct enemy, a country in opposition to the United States. This has of course been heightened by rising tension in the last few years, particularly in the lead-up to the Olympics.
For a Russian student in your classroom, this can be extremely frightening. Although compared to many countries the United States can hold a high head when it comes to scapegoating, that is only relative. From the harassment of Germans in WWI to the shameful interments of Japanese citizens during WWII to the vilification of Muslims after the 9/11 attacks, America does not have a clean history. Your Russian student is almost certainly not in any physical danger, but there is a chance he or she is suddenly seen as suspect. (This could be the case even if they are another kind of Slav- see the danger posed to Sikhs in the last decade.) Luckily, there are things you can do to prevent this.
Let the Student Speak for Themselves
There are a couple of things that a protective teacher, friend, or guide will do instinctively. It is easy to say, “Well, Yuri certainly doesn’t support this, so leave him alone,” or “Natasha only supports this because she’s grown up under Putin’s propaganda, so don’t blame her.” These shields are certainly forged with decency in mind, but they are also counter-productive. Suppose the student does think Russia is acting in its interest, and is right in what they are doing? You’ve basically aligned yourself against them, making any form of classroom reconciliation even harder. And the propaganda line is, if well meaning, essentially insulting.
So avoid making assumptions. Let the student speak for themselves- but only if they want. They can only represent themselves. Many Americans who have traveled abroad have had the experience of being lectured by backpackers in some hostel about why America is terrible, before finally saying “Man, I don’t run the country!” Neither, of course, does your exchange student.
Turn fear into opportunity
Your student may want to talk about the current situation, or may feel compelled to do so if he or she is having a hard time with their peers. Before it gets to this point, you have to make it clear that no matter what, the student is not to be blamed, and that there is a zero-tolerance policy on scapegoating. Remember that, for your American students, this is something that is unfortunately part of human nature, borne of fear, but it can be easily remedied.
This is where you can start a dialogue in the classroom. If your Russian student wishes to talk about how they feel about things, you should let them. It is a humanizing activity, reminding your other students that Russia isn’t just the rolling tanks and smirking strongmen they see on TV.
But remember: you aren’t trying to make international peace in your classroom. The point of this is not to solve all U.S. – Russian tension, but to make sure that your international student is seen as a peer. They are a high school student, far away from home, but still a human. That’s the most important thing to do. In times of crisis, it is easy to forget that people are essentially human (as the great Russian writer Isaac Babel said, “in revolution, a mother is an afterthought”.) You may want to create international peace, and if you foment understanding in your students, you may help the next generation rule better. But at the end of the day, if your students recognize that the international student is not the a fifth column or the vanguard of some grim horde, but just another kid in the lunch line who is trying to balance homework and a social life, just like everyone else, you’ve done your job.
The international student experience is both challenging and exciting. Whether you are a student considering studying in America, their parent, the host family, the Head of School, an international coordinator, or even a potential classmate, there are as many opportunities for confusion as there are to learn. The ISPA is here to help bridge that gap, to ensure that this opportunity and adventure is met with the highest level of success.