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Lisa Trei, News Service (650) 725-0224; e-mail:

Russian, U.S. students break down stereotypes and promote social entrepreneurship at "Democratic Partners" leadership conference

Ludmila Kurochkina, a blind 20-year-old, wants to set up a disability resource center for students in Ekaterinburg, her hometown in Russia. Leeza Perova, 20, plans to establish an online job database for graduates entering a tight job market in St. Petersburg. Brian Babcock, a student at West Point, dreams of creating an online information exchange between military cadets in the United States and the former Soviet Union. Aliona Bocharova from Russia's St. Petersburg State University and Ariana Torchin from the University of Virginia want to create a joint interactive website for undergraduates and faculty that breaks down post-Cold War stereotypes and fosters bilateral networking.

These are "first-ever" projects. And all of them came about as a result of a weeklong conference called "Democratic Partners: U.S.-Russian Student Leadership Summit." In its second year, the conference was organized and run by a group of Stanford students who raised $100,000 in sponsorship from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, the David and Lucile Packard Foundation, the Institute for International Studies and Stanford.

"What I've learned is that Stanford students are not only interested in making money, they have serious social concerns," said Amer Ahmed, a junior in human biology and political science and a conference organizer.

He says his classmates want to make a difference not by holding a "glorified lecture series where Americans tell Russians how to fix their democracy," but by establishing personal contacts that foster diplomacy and social activism from the ground up.

The conference was first conceived in 1999 by then-undergraduates Matthew Spence and Cody Harris, who wanted to find a more meaningful way to bring together young Russians and Americans with common goals and interests. Coit Blacker, the co-director of the Institute for International Studies who has become the event's main faculty adviser, told the students it was important that the conference produce a "deliverable" -- a practical outcome.

Consequently, a plan to develop and implement community service projects in both countries was born. The idea took off -- at this year's conference, two Russian students from the first conference returned to share their experiences establishing a university debate club in Moscow and a program to send refugee children from Chechnya to summer camps in Volgograd. The students talked about how they overcame obstacles and motivated strangers to help them in a country where service projects are dismissed by people recalling the forced "voluntary" labor programs of the Soviet era.

"It wasn't easy," said 18-year-old Masha Rubanovskaya, president of the debate club at the Higher School of Economics in Moscow. "People didn't want to get involved." Rubanovskaya said she had to show how volunteers would benefit from helping her. After she got five students to distribute a political newspaper, she "repaid" them by inviting them to an economic seminar, she explained.

This year's conference, which concluded April 11, brought together 25 Russian and 15 American students from universities nationwide, and 10 student organizers from Stanford. Applicants were selected based on evidence of personal and student leadership, English proficiency for the Russians, demonstrated knowledge of U.S.-Russia relations and a personal statement. "We wanted an inspirational spark," Ahmed said.

They got it.

Blacker said this year's conference had several important outcomes.

"A very promising group of young Russian leaders met with their American counterparts," he said. "The network they've established will continue to develop over the years." In the future, Blacker said, the students likely will end up in positions of authority and be able to draw on the contacts and friendships made at the conference.

"You come away with a sense of the importance that they know each other directly," he said.

The Russian students also learned how adept U.S. students are at accessing institutional resources. In Russia, Blacker said, students are faced with a far more hierarchical and inflexible system.

Furthermore, the Russians had the opportunity to see that the conference was a student-run effort in which faculty played a circumscribed role. "That's striking and empowering for them," said Blacker.

Finally, the Russian participants experienced firsthand the informality and ease of communication between Stanford students and faculty. "Faculty in Russia tend to be condescending," he said. "It's good for them to see another model."

The conference not only focused on how to conceive, fund and implement community service projects but also included a range of activities and events aimed at breaking down stereotypes, fostering cooperation and inspiring public service. Former U.S. Sen. Gary Hart gave an opening speech about what it means to live in a real republic. "You cannot have a democratic republic without having duties as well as rights," he said. "Living in a society is not what you can get, it's what you can give back."

A foreign policy panel on the U.S.-Russia relationship featured presentations by Blacker; Gregory Freidin, chair of the Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures; history Professor Norman Naimark; and Igor Maslov, an officer at the Russian Consulate in San Francisco. The speakers agreed that the relationship between the two former superpowers has moved into a more realistic, cautious phase and that each side must learn to be more pragmatic.

"It is too much to say we have a partnership," Naimark said. "But we do have a different relationship than we did 20 years ago." Both societies have greater access to one other at many different levels something that scarcely existed during the Cold War. Referring to the conference, Maslov said, "I believe these programs are very effective at improving U.S.-Russia relations. You are young, open-minded, and you have the opportunity to understand the position and mentality of each other."

Former U.S. Secretary of Defense William Perry, professor of management science and engineering, gave a keynote speech inspiring the students to pursue a career in public service. "Government service is not a way to win fame or fortune," he said. "But the fulfillment I gained from the job [as defense secretary] was more than the cost." Referring to a quote by former U.S. President John F. Kennedy, he said, "Every person can make a difference, and each person should try."

After the speech, Kurochkina said she had never considered a career in government. "Maybe I should," she said. "I'm strongly against discrimination. Perhaps I could become minister of education."


By Lisa Trei

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