Stanford program fosters U.S.-Russian student relations

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Stanford program fosters U.S.-Russian student relations
Published 31-10-2013, 15:55

Allison Hammond

Allison Hammond is a junior at University of Kansas

SURF connects 20 American and 20 Russian college students to explore policy, business and economics.

Jonathan Blaisdell, a graduate student at California State University – San Bernardino, thinks the media is portraying the relationship between the United States and Russia as being at its coldest point since the Cold War.

Recent events — including Syria's ongoing civil war, policy disagreements and the Edward Snowden affair — have increased tensions. However, Blaisdell thinks U.S.-Russian relations aren't as frosty as they might seem.

"If you only watch the news, then you would think relations are a lot worse than they actually are," Blaisdell says. "I don't think the media often portrays relationships between people, or cultural diplomacy. It usually focuses on relationships between the governments."

Blaisdell participated first-hand in cultural diplomacy when he traveled to Moscow earlier this month as a delegate for the Stanford U.S.-Russia Forum (SURF) — a program founded in 2008 by students, for students.

The SURF program brings 20 American and 20 Russian college students together every year to explore policy, business and economics.

At the Moscow conference earlier this month, the students created 10 groups for collaborative research projects on topics including energy, business, Central Asia and education. Over the next few months, each group will work with professional or academic mentors and companies to produce a report to present at a conference at Stanford in April.

Ravi Patel, SURF president, says the program aims to improve ties between the U.S. and Russia.

"The first goal I see is for students to gain useful skills and useful experience by working on collaborative research projects," says Patel, a graduate student at Stanford.. "The second goal is to bring Russian and American university students together and build friendships and ties between the people themselves."

This second goal is where Patel sees the most potential for SURF delegates to affect international relations.

He says the difficult U.S.-Russian governmental relationship makes these student-to-student interactions more important, because these ties will help U.S.-Russian relations when current Millennials are making decisions.

The results of the student collaborations will be published in the SURF Journal, which represents the Russian and American students' views on current issues.

Patel says this allows the students to tangibly benefit from the relationship between the two countries.

This end product is valuable, but the experience of working with people from another country is more beneficial, says Aia Sarycheva, a Yale University student and SURF delegate.

"I think one of the biggest problems in U.S.-Russian relations and in international relations in general is the misconceptions people have of each other," Sarycheva says. "Through SURF, we are able to form genuine relationships that I think are the way to really change the perceptions we might have of one another."

Even if Millennials cannot draft legislation or change how governments work —yet —, they should get involved in international relations now, says Amber Ausley, a University of Alabama student and SURF delegate..

"It's going to be imperative for jobs in the future for people to be able to collaborate across these country boundaries," Ausley says. "It's important for people to really care about what's going on in other countries and really pay attention so we can show we're a generation that wants to make a difference and improve relations."

In April, Blaisdell and his fellow delegates will meet again at Stanford to share their research. His group is researching international security and will present a report on how a company can sell sensitive technologies to the U.S. government and its allies as well as to private companies.

Blaisdell likes knowing his product can help a company. Even though Millennials are young, Blaisdell thinks they see problems in new ways and can positively affect international relations.

"A young person with a fresh mind and an open perspective might be able to realize that certain things past generations have been holding onto might not be necessary to hold onto anymore," Blaisdell says. "The new perspective allows for new opportunities."

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