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ISU students seek common ground with Russian counterparts as the war in Ukraine intensifies

Tourists walk outside at the Red Square in Moscow.
Dave Thomas
Tourists walk outside at the Red Square in Moscow.

Illinois State University has participated in a foreign exchange program with a school in Russia since 2015.

As Russia continues its military assault in Ukraine, conversations between students at ISU and Vladimir State University could change. So far they haven't.

ISU exercise science professor Dave Thomas helps coordinate the program. He said his exchange students used to spend 16 days in Russia, including 10 days in Vladimir, a city of close to 350,000 east of Moscow.

Since the coronavirus pandemic began in 2020, exchanges have been virtual. Thomas and his counterpart in Russia arranged a Zoom call this week between 10 students of the two universities, including ISU junior exercise science majors Kasey Henkins and Abbey DiSalvo.

Golden Gate of Vladimir, Russia
Dave Thomas
A view of the Golden Gate of Vladimir, Russia.

Thomas said students led the one-hour conversation and no one brought up Ukraine.

DiSalvo said she was hesitant to discuss Ukraine because she “didn’t want to start any problems,” but she wished someone had. Instead, DiSalvo said she learned how much she and her Russian counterparts have in common.

“A lot of people were bonding over stuff. They had similar interests and that was interesting and cool,” DiSalvo said. “I didn’t expect everyone to have similar childhood stories.”

Henkins said the students tried to keep the conversation upbeat, noting she can't imagine the difficulties Russian students face as sanctions impact their daily lives.

“It’s just a very tough time for them, and it’s hard to want to talk about it to someone who might not exactly know what they are going through because they are restricted in a lot of ways and they are experiencing big hardships,” she said.

Henkins is pleased to see Russians protesting in the streets shortly after the war in Ukraine began. “It’s very unfortunate for the situation they are in and as little freedoms as they have. Hopefully, they can make a difference with that.”

DiSalvo expressed empathy for the Russian people who have spoken out against their country’s actions in Ukraine. “It’s the 21st century and we are having a war in this time period. That’s just sad and I think everyone is really upset by it,” she said.

Thomas said he’s not aware the Russian students had any restrictions placed on what they could say during the call, adding he wasn’t surprised to see that several of his colleagues in Russia have posted messages of peace, in apparent defiance of their government’s aggression against Ukraine.

“They don’t control their government any more than we control our government,” Thomas said. “They are trying to do what they can on a person-to-person level to show that they care about the rest of the world, just like we do.”

He added most of the protesters in Russia tend to be younger and more tech-savvy, meaning they are more likely to access news beyond state-regulated propaganda.

Thomas said both universities want to continue the conversation soon, but they plan to move away from Zoom to What’s App, a platform that's more difficult for the Russian government to monitor.

And, DiSalvo and Henkins both said they plan to visit Russia sometime in the future.

Bloomington-Normal also has a sister cities partnership with Vladimir, Russia.

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Eric Stock is the News Director at WGLT. You can contact Eric at ejstoc1@ilstu.edu.
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