My experience in Vytegra has been really eye opening and brought me many new questions and perceptions of the heartland. Going to the schools and seeing what daily life is like for those that are raised in Vytegra was very telling for how and why things are as they are here and how they differ from the U.S. and St. Petersburg. By interacting with the students, exchanging questions, and seeing how subjects are taught has been absolutely fascinating and given me many comparisons to make with other abroad experiences I have had along with at home.
One area that really surprised me was the emphasis placed on the arts. I should have been expecting this more than I was, since we were fairly warned that they would all have poetry memorized, revealing the importance that they place on it, but it is much more extensive than that. Seeing students interaction with the poetry in person is so powerful in a way I could never have realized from being told in a classroom and how musical and crafty the majority of the students were was on a level I have never experienced in the U.S. or anywhere else for that matter. This goes beyond the classroom and to the community at large, exemplified by the Children’s Creativity Center, which has many different craft lessons, such as lace-making, that is free for all children to take. The fact that this is free and that there is such a variety available to all children was astounding and frankly made me envy this aspect of their culture. In terms of the U.S., we focus much more on the hard sciences, at the expense of art, which has left a hole in our culture that is slowly growing larger. The art in Vytegra seems to help maintain a hold on the past while the city is looking toward the future. Through lace-making and poetry, the youth are able to connect with their ancestors and elders in their community and maintain an important part of their culture in a steadily globalizing and homogenizing world. Although we did not spend much time in St. Petersburg, I can safely assume that this is not the case in a larger city and that their schools are probably focusing more on hard sciences at the expense of art, in the same way the U.S. is. This realization is one of the strongest of the trip that I really hope to bring back with me and vocalize to others to bring in a new viewpoint and example of the importance of art and the humanities.
Another interesting experience with the schools was my sparse interactions with males that were not students. All of the teachers I met were women and I only met one male administrator. Although I later found out that the male teachers tend to be in the hard sciences, this discrepancy was very telling to me, especially in conjunction with other experiences surrounding gender that we have had on this trip. I know that this is similar to the U.S. in that I have only had a handful of male teachers and in that handful only 2 or 3 were not in the hard sciences, and it just goes to show the structural gender divides that still exist throughout the world. Although there are no laws that specify that women and men have to be interested in certain topics, it becomes apparent that there are expectations that are still being reinforced silently throughout the world. This realization is not due only to the gender of teachers that I met, but also to our experiences at the youth center and other random experiences we have had as a group throughout the week. Overall, the realizing some very stark differences and similarities between the U.S. and Vytegra have epitomized the importance of traveling and immersing oneself in another culture, because these are realizations that I could not have come to in such a deep and meaningful fashion as I have while here in Vytegra.