After four months in Oklahoma, it's time for East Central University's first two Russian exchange students to pack their bags and go home.
"It will be a huge problem to pack all the things I bought here," Ekaterina Sazonova said with a smile. "I've already bought an additional suitcase."
Sazonova said she is taking Native American dream catchers, souvenir Oklahoma plates and American clothes back to Moscow when she and Valeriya Kazakevich leave Ada on Dec. 21 [MONDAY].
Russian exchange students from East Central University try on cowboy hats at a western wear store as they learn about the state's culture. An unidentified store employee poses with Ekaterina Sazonova (from left), Valeriya Kazakevich and Dr. Mara Sukholutskaya, ECU professor of English and languages.
Kazakevich said Russia has big stores, but clothes are much cheaper here. She joked that she bought half of the ECU Bookstore's merchandise for her parents, friends "and me, of course."
More importantly, the Russian students said, they have been able to study at ECU, learn the culture, see as much as possible, improve their English and learn that people basically are the same everywhere.
"I thought we were different," Kazakevich said. "I've met so many people from different countries here, different cultures, but we're all the same. We are all young people with the same interests.
"I was shocked," she added, "that I came to America and now I know so many people from different countries."
ECU President John Hargrave recently took Sazonova, Kazakevich and two other international students to Oklahoma City to tour the state Capitol and visit the Oklahoma History Center.
"We are really grateful that he showed so much interest in us," Kazakevich said. "We've never met our president."
The Russian women are students at the State University of Management in Moscow which has an exchange agreement with ECU. Richard Baughman of Ada, ECU's first exchange student in Russia, has been in Moscow since September.
Dr. Mara Sukholutskaya, ECU professor of English and languages, was instrumental in establishing exchange programs with the State University of Management and Kiev National University of Linguistics in Ukraine.
"Our ability to understand people has really improved," Sazonova said. "not only the accent, but we didn't know modern words at first."
The students said the English they learned in Russia was more for understanding signs and other written materials, not everyday conversation.
International students at East Central University stand outside the Governor's Office at the Oklahoma State Capitol during a trip led by ECU President John Hargrave (fourth from left). Visiting the capitol and Oklahoma History Center were Jomain McKenzie (from left) of Clarendon, Jamaica; Geoffery Fonga of Yaounde, Cameroon; Ekaterina Sazonova of Moscow, Russia; Hargrave; Dr. Mara Sukholutskaya, ECU professor of English and languages; and Valeriya Kazakevich of Moscow, Russia. Sazonova and Kazakevich are returning home after a semester as ECU's first exchange students from Russia.
"I was unable to communicate with people my age," Kazakevich said. "Every day, we get something new, even though we've been here four months."
Those four months seemed so long at first, like half a life, Sazonova said, but the time has flown by. They have talked frequently with their parents and said they have had no bad experiences since coming to ECU and would do it again. Still, there were moments when they were overcome by thoughts of home.
"Moscow was the place I grew up in," Kazakevich said. "There are so many emotions connected to the things I've experienced all my life. I really got used to the hectic pace of life (there). But I'm sure I'll miss not having to walk more than five minutes to get to the dorm."
Sazonova said she thought she was trying to enjoy her time here and not think about Moscow, "but some days I would be listening to Russian music and I would be crying. I was feeling kind of patriotic."
"I love my country," Kazakevich said, "but I wanted to enjoy my time here. I thought I should get the most out of life here. I am so happy I had this chance."
They had no car, but people have volunteered to take them to places and events. They traveled to Dallas to hear the punk rock band Blink 182 and with ECU's Russian Club to see the Ukrainian National Folk Dance Ensemble. They saw more of Dallas over fall break, including where President John F. Kennedy was assassinated.
"That was very interesting for me," Sazonova said.
They also enjoyed seeing the Massenkoff Russian Folk Festival performance at ECU in October.
"It was very nice to get Russian culture so far from home," Kazakevich said. "I thought, 'I can't believe I'm sitting in Ada listening to all the songs I've known all my life.' I'm fascinated by the way cultures mix up."
"And overcome barriers," Sazonova quickly added.
The students also toured the Gilcrease Museum in Tulsa.
"I liked it very much," Sazonova said. "I didn't know that Indian culture plays such a big role here. I found it very interesting."
They also visited other Oklahoma towns and Kazakevich said she was impressed by "the nature in general and all the animals running around, all the tiny houses and Christmas decorations."
The Russian students said they are happy they had the opportunity to share their culture through private lessons with students in Sukholutskaya's Intermediate Russian class. Meeting once a week with each student for 40 minutes allowed them to learn about each other.
"I think we should thank all the people who helped us," Kazakevich said, "the kind people of Oklahoma who are helping us. It is so hard to leave and go so far from home. People are always helping us."
"I hope the (exchange) program will go further," Sazonova said. "I want people to experience the same thing we experienced here. "I hope it will help in my career because I will be able to compare the different cultures and understand how to communicate with Americans from the inside, not just from what we see in the movies."
Both are majoring in sociology in Russia and hope to work in public relations.
"I would love to work in a large multinational corporation and be able to travel," Kazakevich said. "Being in America even four months gives you a better chance to get a better job in Russia."
"We can communicate with American companies. We know the English language, but we also know the culture," Sazonova added.
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