Returning to Russia


Photo courtesy of Dr. Jeff Birkenstein

Amy Pollard, Column Editor

When Dr. Jeff Birkenstein went on the Russia trip with Dr. Jamie Olson last year, little did he know that just one year later he would be back – on a Fulbright Award.

The Fulbright Scholar Program, administered by the Council for International Exchange of Scholars, is a national program that sponsors American faculty members to teach and study abroad for a semester.

“In a way it’s like the Peace Corps for academics,” explains Birkenstein, who is a professor and Chair of the English Department at Saint Martin’s University.

As a Fulbright Scholar, Birkenstein will spend this semester at the Karelian State Pedagogical Academy (KSPA) in Petrozavodsk, Russia. He plans to divide his time between teaching and research, exploring the genre of short story and how Russian writers impacted the American short story.

“It will be fun to go back to Russia, where the short story is a very big genre,” Birkenstein says, reflecting that Russia has some of the “greats of the genre,” such as Anton Chekov, who influenced American short story writers.

He will be teaching Russian students who aspire to become English teachers. Outside of the classroom, Birkenstein will work closely with Igor Krasnov, a professor at KSPA, as he researches the short story and methods for teaching it.

Although Birkenstein is no stranger to traveling (having previously taught at Shanghai Maritime University and led numerous study tours, most recently the Italy trip), he knows that this experience abroad will be memorable. Ever since he joined Dr. Jamie Olson for the trip to Russia last year, he has wanted to return and study the short story in-depth.

“I like to combine travel and teaching,” Birkenstein explains. “I have a great life here in the Northwest of the United States, but at the same time, it’s refreshing to go somewhere else and to remind yourself that the whole world is not like the United States.”

Birkenstein plans to stay in an apartment that is about a 25-minute walk from campus. Although he will be teaching Russian students whose English is “very good”, he plans to brush up on his Russian.

“It’ll be fine on campus with the students and professors, but I’ll be going to the grocery store, to a bar, may be taking a couple weekend trips. I’ll be running into plenty of people who don’t speak English,” commented Birkenstein.

The Fulbright Award came as a surprise to Birkenstein, who was at first notified that he was an “alternate”. When friends lent support, the general consensus was no one gets the award the first time. However, right after he had come to terms with the news, Birkenstein received another notification. The status of his application had changed: he was now accepted.

“I’m really lucky,” he says, reflecting on the experience. “It’s exciting. It’s unexpected.”

During his semester abroad, Birkenstein hopes to build new connections and to strengthen existing ones.

“It’s just fun to go to another place, and talk to people who have pretty much the same interests as we do,” he remarks. “They want to get by in life, they want to love and be loved, but it’s through a different culture.”

He encourages students to look into the Russia trip in 2014. He also hopes that his Fulbright will help strengthen SMU’s connections with KSPA.

“It would be wonderful to setup some sort of exchange between students or teachers,” he comments. “The more levels of interaction we can have I think it’s better for everybody.”

Interested in the 2014 Russia trip? Contact Dr. Jamie Olson at

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