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Oppenheim: The Russian Exchange

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David Smith
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The commentator was a co-director for a media literacy camp for 20 Russian journalism students who came to Burlington a week during a month-long visit to the U.S.

Sometimes, you just know you're having a life-changing experience. In my case, it was a chance in early July to teach Russian college students about media in the U.S.A. It all started when a Vermont-based company, Project Harmony International, organized an exchange program through the U.S. Embassy in Moscow. Several hundred Russians applied for just 20 slots and a very cool trip. The finalists, all with strong journalism backgrounds, would make stops at broadcast stations, documentary units like WGBH in Boston - and newspapers like the New York Times. But there was a whole Vermont thing too. During the month long-program, the Russians spent a week at Champlain College, where they got a blend of classroom time and field work. Each student was assigned a camera and produced video content and news stories.

A few memories … One student, Dasha, wanted to interview a Burlington police officer so she could produce a story comparing Russian and American cops. Special thanks to Deputy Chief John Murad who said yes to her request – and fielded every question she threw at him.

The students also descended on the Burlington Farmers Market to ask shoppers and vendors about the farm-to-table scene - and other stuff, too. They were curious to know if Vermonters saw Russians as stereotypes. A native of Novosibirsk wondered what people here associate with her homeland – Siberia.

What stayed with me is how the Russians really understood our differences in a way I could not. They come from a closed media system. But from the start, they had a fundamental appreciation that the American media landscape, messy as it is, is an open one. On local site visits to WCAX, the Burlington Free Press and VPR, students asked key questions about how journalists work – and how they determine what's newsworthy.

In our world, it's easy to be jaded about the quality of our media. But watching the Russians explore our brand of journalism with such enthusiasm was inspiring. It reminded me that, imperfect though it may be, our media system really does have a lot to offer.