Remember the Cold War? In the minds of today’s students, the term may have more to do with Olympic ice skating than with any political rivalries between the United States and former Soviet Union. In fact, one school’s use of SkillsUSA’s mentoring program showed how far the two nations have come.
Ten Russian students, along with teacher Larisa Shatova, traveled from the Russian town of Shebekino to Bismarck, N.D. The journey was part of an ongoing exchange program that Fran Joersz and Peggy Hoge, instructors at Horizon Middle School, had been organizing since 1998. As part of the program, Russian students of around 14 years of age spend two weeks with American host families, learning the culture and attending school. Later in the year, American students do likewise in Russia.
When Julie Barth, digital design instructor at Bismarck Vocational Technical Center (BVTC) learned of the program, she worked with Joersz and Hoge to make sure that a visit with her school’s SkillsUSA chapter would be part of the itinerary. Dale Hoerauf, BVTC’s director, readily agreed.
“One of the things [the Russians] said was that they’d been in English classes and history classes,” Hoerauf explains, “and they wanted to be in something where they could get their hands into the career aspects of Americans. That’s why it excited them to come to the center.”
Bob Laches, an electronics instructor at BVTC, thought the visit would tie in perfectly to SkillsUSA’s Student2Student mentoring program, already well practiced at the center. In the program, high school members demonstrate their areas of study to younger students through activities in a variety of skilled occupational areas.
Although the mentoring program had previously served only local elementary students, Laches was excited about the prospect of making the visiting Russians a part of what had already proven to be a very successful activity. “It only made sense,” he says, “having these Russian students actually experiencing hands-on skills while they’re here learning about our education system, and then bringing [SkillsUSA] along with it.”
After Barth’s and Laches’ students planned the activities for the coming visit, the Russians began their day at the vocational center with a hands-on tour of Barth’s digital design classroom. “They took some pictures with the digital camera,” Barth says, “and then they took those over to a computer where I had them paired up with two of my students. My students showed them how to alter their pictures in Photoshop; they also showed them how to do a transfer sheet and work with colored pencils. They just had a really good time.”
According to Barth, any initial apprehension due to language and cultural barriers quickly gave way to normal teen-age bonding. “I know that at the end of the day, they were all so excited and bubbly like kids get at that point,” she says. “[The Russian students] had such a good time and were so happy with what we had given them. My students were real excited.”
After a short tour of the entire campus, the Russians made their way to Laches’ electronics classroom.
“We had them construct a project on the computer using electronic workbench, our industry standard,” Laches says. “It was up to the [SkillsUSA] students to explain to the Russians what the component was, what the circuit was, how it worked, etc.”
Electronics technology student Chad Kleingartner was impressed with the Russian students’ collective aptitude. “They grasped the concepts quickly when they built electronic circuits, because they had good mechanical skills,” he says. “It was also fun talking with them about the things they do at home and how we’re similar.”
After the classroom experiences, everyone regrouped for lunch, where the visitors were presented with commemorative certificates and buttons created by the SkillsUSA students. Some of the Russians offered gifts to their mentors as well.
Before the Russian contingent left the center, all of the day’s participants assembled for the obligatory group picture. “When we asked them to get together in a group,” Hoerauf remembers, “it was not like the traditional picture where you hide behind the next character. They all got up there, they all arranged themselves, they were excited, they were a team in just the short time they spent together. They were a little family.”
“Teen-age kids don’t always tell you what’s truly on their mind,” Barth adds, “but after the Russian kids left, my students made comments like, ‘Wow, this was really neat,’ and things I’ve never heard them saying, so they really enjoyed it.”
“They learned so very much and were treated like royalty,” Shatova says of her students. “The kids loved the entire day.”
“Certainly our cultural differences stood out rapidly,” Laches points out, “but I think our students found out that [the Russians] are just like us. I think there’s a lot of perception that these Russian people are some kind of an enemy, but I think they found out that these kids are just like them They’re inquisitive and they’re willing to learn. And I think our kids realized what they’ve got.”
As middle-school teacher Hoge prepares to chaperone American students during the next phase of the exchange program, a visit to Shebekino, Barth and Laches are already talking about repeating their mentoring experience next year with a new group of Russian young people. The event has meant extra work for all involved, but Laches feels it’s that commitment that is the hallmark of the SkillsUSA program.
“Vocational education has always been about going a little step further,” he says. “You educate the whole person, not just [with] the technical aspects. Anybody can sit with a textbook and teach a kid ‘a-b-c-d.’ It’s another thing to make them employable and make them respect them- selves and others. What we’re basically doing is bringing the whole picture of community and country together.”
SkillsUSA Champions | Summer 2002 | Volume 36, No. 4