Bryan Billings, iEARN Alum, USA
Dear Dr. Gragert,
My name is Bryan Billings, and I was a participant in the exchange funded by the Copen Foundation between Northport High School on Long Island and Moscow School 1129 in the late 1980's and early 1990's, and later went on to spend more than eight years living and working in the Russian Federation.
My family was contacted in 2007 as part of a follow-up to the exchange on its twentieth anniversary, and my parents met you at an event to commemorate the exchange. I personally spoke with Sora Chung about my participation in the exchange and the impact it had on my life from my office in St. Petersburg.
The late 1980's and the early 19990's were such an exciting time for Soviet [Russian]-American relations, and it was so thrilling to speak to Muscovite children of the same age. I remember sending letters with baseball cards and receiving letters with Soviet candy-wrappers in return, and being so utterly fascinated. Sending emails from the one computer in Northport High-School that had email access, and actually seeing and speaking with Russians via the Lumaphone, a technology which seemed so cutting edge.
Of course the greatest impact of the exchange came when in the spring of 1991 a group of students from 1129 came to Northport, and one stayed with my family. It was so exhilarating, that more than twenty years later I am still working with Russia!
After that first visit, I myself went on a class trip to Moscow in 1993, then hosted another student in the spring of 1994, and from then on I regularly visited Russia, studying it in college, taking time off to teach English at 1129 one spring, and eventually in 2004 settling down to a job working at Smolny College in St. Peterburg for Bard College in Upstate New York, running exchange programs for American and Russian students and working on the Bard/Smolny collaboration (graduates receive dual degrees from Bard and St. Petersburg State university).
Although by 2004 both Russia and Russian-American relations had changed dramatically, working with American students, introducing them to Russian culture, in many ways brought back the thrill of the early days of my Russia experience. Working on higher-ed reform in Russia was also exhilarating, and certainly challenging (Smolny is Russia's first liberal arts college).
I am writing to thank you and Mr. Copen for the life-changing experience that the exchange turned out to be for me. If it had not been for the initial contact between Northport and 1129 I am certain I would not have pursued an interest in Russia in any way. And although working with Russia is almost always challenging, I still feel that thrill, even if that thrill no longer entails waiting for a lumaphone image to appear line by line. Thank you.
Bryan Billings, May 2012
[In 1988, the Copen Family Foundation linked 12 schools in Moscow with 12 schools in New York State in the New York/Moscow Schools Telecommunications Project. Working with the New York State Education Department and the Soviet Academy of Sciences, students worked in both English and Russian on curriculum-based projects designed by participating teachers. This early pilot program became iEARN, which is now active in over 130 countries]