By Carly Johansen
Senior Richard Bechtol has had his fair share of international experiences; a summer at “Russian Boot Camp” and a run in with the Russian government and exploring Eastern Europe, Dillon is ready to take on his next challenge: the Peace Corps. Read on for the interview!
How did you start studying Russian?
People ask me that all the time- I don’t have a very good answer. I took two years of Spanish in high school, but I didn’t really learn much. When I came to college, I still needed a year of language, but I didn’t want to continue on with Spanish. I had always been interested in Russian culture and history, so I decided to try Russian. That was the extent of my thought process, really. I didn’t know that I would love it as much as I did though. I told myself that I had 8 semesters- 4 years- to get all of my language requirements in. Then, I took the Russian classes, and I truly loved them. Professor Mesropova is one of my favorite professors I’ve had here at ISU, and we still maintain a really good relationship. The rest is kind of history!
Since Russian courses are taught in English after the 200 level here at ISU, how have you maintained your Russian skills?
I took 101 and 102, 201 and 202 the first four semesters that I was in college. After that, I did take the 300 level classes that are offered- both the specific Russian courses and Political Science 349- which is on the history of Russian-Soviet politics. I kind of took my third year to see where my options were that way. And then I studied abroad this past summer in Russia. I was a little rusty by the time I got to Russia, though I did use an app called Babel for language practice, but it wasn’t the same as being in classes. I definitely picked it back up when I got there.
Let’s talk about that study abroad in Russia. Were you living with a host family?
I lived with a woman named Natalia. Technically, she lived by herself, but she always had her son and daughter-in-law and granddaughter and several others (whose connection alluded me) were always over at the house. A big part of Russian culture is hospitality, and there would be times when I would get home from class, and she would have friends and family over with this big meal laid out. I maybe had eaten lunch an hour or two before, and I was just basically forced to sit down and partake.
I have a feeling that sounds familiar to many of our readers. And what about classes? Were you with the other international students, or were you mixed in with the Russian students?
I imagined my classes to be me sitting in the room with the five other Americans, but that was not the case at all. “Classes”- and I say that loosely- consisted of me and my specific professor going to her office five days a week for five hours a day, and her just grilling me on Russian grammar, language, all sorts of stuff with a ten-minute break in the middle. She would pull a book out of her library of textbooks on the shelf and open to a section and start asking me questions. If I answered to her satisfaction, she would just flip to the next section. It was like Russian boot camp! I can say that I learned the language so well because of it though.
That’s not the norm for Russian undergraduates though, right? The one-on-one aspects of it?
No, no, definitely not. I think it was a combination of the fact that we were international students and the university had the people who were able to do it. Our first few weeks, the regular university was still in session, so it was full of other students and faculty and all sorts of people. When they got out of class, it was just…empty. A week after that, I got a call from my professor who said ‘We’re not going to have class today. See you next week.’ It was a very rushed call, and I assumed that it was some sort of emergency or something. Then, and this sounds like it’s out of a movie, when I came back the next week, I found out that a surprise delegation from Moscow had come from the Department of Education. Long story short, the university I was with was originally an affiliate of Moscow State University, but the main school had been doing a terrible job of investing tuition and stuff. My university decided that they would rather be a part of Irkutsk State University (Irkutsk was the city that I was in). Basically, Moscow came in with this delegation that said ‘Okay, you can switch, but all of your furniture and stuff is our property and we’re going to take it.’ So after that, the University had zero money, and many professors, not mine luckily, just left. They hadn’t gotten paid in awhile, and they would just not show up. The university was saying that they weren’t going to be able to afford to keep as many professors after the merger as well. Both of my professors were higher up, so they didn’t have a problem, but it got to the point where three Americans were taking classes with our program coordinator (who was not supposed to be teaching). On top of all that, we were hopping from building to building because they were taking all of the furniture. Then, this program director just didn’t show up one day either. They up and moved to St. Petersburg.
Did that affect your transfer credits?
Well, one of my friends had a professor named Alexander. Alexander was a total rip, incredibly smart but pretty full of himself. Eventually, he was the one who kind of saved us at the end. He had to call over to the office for a week or so and finally track down the people who were supposed to be taking care of stuff and get them to sit down and do it.
What a stressful situation to be in! To tie this back to our theme for the month, do you think that Russian people have a different view of themselves than we do here?
A Russian friend of mine who had spent some time in the US gave me this analogy. Russian people are like coconuts, and Americans are like onions. With an onion, no matter what, you always get a sense of what’s inside. You can get deeper into the onion, but you know from the get-go what you’re getting into. With Russian people, they have a hard, rough exterior and you have no idea what’s inside, but as soon as you break through that façade, you get all of the coconut goodness inside. And that proved to be really true. I’m a firm believer that we’re all united by our common humanity, but Russians have a very different idea of what that might be. Some things are so similar, but others are just plain polar opposites. For example, we wear wedding rings on our left hands here, but Russians wear them on their right.
On another note, we heard that you’ve been accepted into the Peace Corps- congratulations!
Well, pending my medical evaluation, yes! I’ll be teaching English in Mongolia.
The speak Russian in some of the Northern parts there, right? Do you think you’ll be using your Russian?
I did mention on my preference form that I would like to be somewhere that I will use my Russian, so I hope so!
I’ve always heard that it takes a specific type of person to work in the Peace Corps. Do you think there’s any truth to that?
I’ve always been one that dislikes the idea of there being some sort of “mold”. I think that a desire to provide service and a genuine caring about what people say and want. I think that more likely is it would be a sort of malleability, rather than one specific mold from the start.
And with that, we’ll have to call it a day. If there’s one take away from this interview, it’s that, as long as you’re flexible and ready for anything, anything can truly happen.
A few images from Richard’s time abroad: