Over spring break, USG president Michael Yaroshefsky ’12, along with student body presidents from 14 other schools, traveled to the Russian Federation on a trip sponsored by the Russian Federation’s Federal Agency for Youth Affairs.
The purpose of the trip was to give the young leaders of tomorrow “a better understanding of Russia’s development path and an insight into the Russian leaders’ decision-making logic,” according to the invitation sent to Yaroshefsky.
The 15 student-body presidents were nominated by U.S. congressmen at the Open World Leadership Center and then selected by Russian officials. The student delegation included young leaders from Princeton, Duke, University of Kentucky, North Carolina State University, Emory and 10 other schools.
Their eight-day trip, from March 8–15, consisted of meeting many high level officials, including Arkady Dvorkovich, chief economic adviser to the president of the Russian Federation, and Vladislav Surkov, first deputy chief of staff of the president of the Russian Federation and top aide to Vladimir Putin, as well as U.S. Vice President Joe Biden, who spoke at Moscow State University.
Given the past conflict between the U.S. and Russia, as well as the problem of corruption in the country, the student delegation was concerned about how sincere discussions with Russian officials would be, Yaroshefsky said. Some of the student delegates worried that the Russian government would see this opportunity as a chance to convince the students that Russia is a problem-free country, he explained.
Yaroshefsky said he was surprised to find that the Russian officials were actually very frank about the issues discussed, which ranged from education to economic opportunities to changes that have occurred over time. They also discussed the obstacles that currently stand in the way of more cooperation between the two nations and how differences in the nations’ backgrounds affected their decision-making processes.
“There was no pretense,” Yaroshefsky said. “We saw many positive aspects but also problems that Russia was making an effort to deal with.”
Corruption and lack of opportunities for higher education were two problems that the students experienced. “A few of us were pulled over by a police officer while in a taxi,” Yaroshefsky recalled. “We had to bribe the police officer to let us go.”
In talking to students from Moscow State University, the student delegation found that going to college is not a given in Russia, where many join the workforce after primary education. The gap between the wealthy and the poor was another factor that shocked the student delegation, Yaroshefsky explained.
“The biggest lesson I took away from the trip was that we have a lot to learn from each other,” he said, noting that America should learn from Russia’s low unemployment rate and rapid economic development.
While the entire trip was a memorable experience, Yaroshefsky said, meeting Biden was one of the most transformative experiences.
“As citizens of the U.S., we view America in one way,” Yaroshefsky said. “Sitting in the audience of mostly Russian students, I was able to see America as viewed by others.” It also gave him another opportunity to appreciate the diplomatic strategies of the U.S., he added.
Between meeting government officials and students in local universities and touring Moscow, Yaroshefsky said, he valued the friendships he made on the trip.
“I made some lifelong friends,” he noted, describing the student delegation as “the ideal group of people you’d want to be in a foreign, formerly-communist country with.”