Notes from the Field

One Student’s Russian Summer

Jessica Vickery
School of Public Health

Spending a semester aboard is common for American undergraduate students, including those at UMass. According to UMass Amherst’s International Programs Office website, over 1,000 UMass undergraduates travel aboard each year.  Most graduate students, however, aren’t so fortunate. While I always wanted to study abroad, I never had the opportunity an undergrad. Last year, when I learned of an opportunity to travel to Veliky Novgorod, Russia to complete my Master’s practicum fieldwork, I knew what I needed to do.

Last year, the UMass Institute for Global Health (IGH) was awarded a grant from the U.S. Department of Education to form a collaborative relationship with Novgorod State University (NovSU).  The grant’s focus is to develop relationships between NovSU and UMass Amherst faculty as well as Novgorod city medical clinic physicians.  To facilitate this collaboration, the grants fund advanced public health graduate students to travel to Veliky Novgorod, Russia for the summer, to participate in summer research. Over the course of the three year grant period, 12 UMass students will travel to Veliky Novgorod to work at one of the city’s three medical clinics.

In 2010, alongside fellow public health graduate students Sima Blank, Lori Crawford, and Megan Griffin, I spent the grant’s inaugural summer in Veliky Novgorod, working at Katarsis, a child and adolescent alcohol and substance abuse clinic. While we received basic Russian language and cultural trainings prior to our departure, I am not sure that anything in the world could have prepared me for the summer ahead. While I originally had grand plans for working at Katarsis, almost immediately, I realized I needed to adjust my expectations and develop a new approach to working internationally. The first challenge: my language barrier.  Prior to leaving for Novgorod, I had approximately 50 hours of language training. My basic skills did not go very far.

To bridge the language gap, my fellow interns and I were partnered with Russian medical students, hired as translators.  Unfortunately, and contrary to our expectations, these students were not fluent in English.  This proved to be the primary challenge of our first three weeks of Novgorod. I attended several meetings with staff clinicians and government officials, conducted exclusively in Russian. Nothing was translated into English, and I am pretty sure that my words weren’t translated into Russian accurately. While my student translators spoke conversational English very well, explaining complex public health concepts was a struggle. I realized I needed to shift my approach in order to make this experience productive.

At the same time, I knew very little about alcohol and substance abuse among youth in Russia and the treatments systems. I decided to ask questions and have as many things translated into English as possible, to develop an understanding of how programs in Russia worked. But as challenging as my first weeks in Russia were, my luck soon changed.

The Monday of my fourth week in Russia, I had an interview set up with Ana, the head of child psychology at Katarsis. Ana was the driving force which lead to my placement at Katarsis, and to my great relief, spoke fluent English.  The first thing Ana said to me was that I would no longer be in need of my translators.  She had studied the social theories and constructs that are the basis for public health programming in the United States. Ana asked me to present on the topic of program planning and evaluation to the Katarsis staff, because that was the largest difference between how the United States and Russia treat alcohol and substance abuse.

In my early interviews, I learned that Katarsis operated under one massive program plan, which is never formally evaluated or adapted based on epidemiological data collection.  In the United States, public health practitioners believe that adjusting programs based upon the needs and feedback of participants is essential to ensuring that a program’s goals and objectives are met.   I also learned that social norms, which play a significant role in U.S. health program planning, were not researched in Russia at all.

Katarsis collects epidemiological data annually, as required by the Russian Federation, but most of this investigates basic information such as the percentage of teenagers who are abusing alcohol, the frequency with which they drink, and whether or not they have tried drugs. The annual interviews consist of approximately 60 pre-set questions which are never changed or adjusted based on data trends.  Additionally, the data is not analyzed to determine what the percentages being collected could actually mean about teenagers in Novgorod and their relationship to alcohol and substances.  In realizing these cultural differences, I found my purpose at Katarsis.

After having two simple data sets translated into English, I set forth on my mission to review the trends and perhaps identify gaps that the clinic could address to elicit changes in program development and administration.  Unfortunately, I did not receive the data until the week before I left Novgorod, so much of my work was accomplished after my return to the United States.

However, my work did not end with my assessment of Katarsis’ data as I have decided to continue my work with Katarsis by developing a program for the clinic to implement as my MPH project and culminating experience.  I am currently working on developing my program under the guidance of Dr. Lisa Wexler and Dr. David Buchanan, the director of the IGH, which will be integrated into the clinic’s current outpatient treatment program.

While we worked hard to develop the groundwork for collaborative relationships with NovSU, Novgorod’s medical clinics, and UMass, our the experience was not all work and no play.  While in Russia, I was able to travel to both St. Petersburg and Moscow and experience the incredible cultural offerings of Russia’s largest cities.

St. Petersburg is home to breathtaking architecture including the iconic Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood, as well as the Hermitage, the third largest museum in the world.  The Hermitage is housed in the Winter Palace, historically inhabited by the Russian royal family, and is full of art and imperial furniture. St. Petersburg is also home to the Russian Museum, which contains a permanent collection of Russian-produced art. The city has a very European vibe, with a rich history and phenomenal architecture at every turn.

Moscow, on the other hand, has a much more metropolitan energy.  According to the City Mayors Foundation, Moscow is the fourth most expensive city in the world.  That did not stop us from experiencing all it had to offer. Home to some of the most iconic sites in all of Russia including the Red Square, Lenin’s Mausoleum, St. Basil’s Cathedral, and the Kremlin, Moscow is larger than life.

All in all, my Russian summer changed my relationship to the United States and informed my future work in public health.  In Russia, I learned to take a step back and absorb what is around me, rather than moving so quickly through the motions.  I learned new ways to explain my viewpoints and take a new stance on how I can learn from the viewpoints of others. Above all else, I learned that working abroad is a great experience for any graduate student who can do it.  For those who can’t, however, try to travel. If you’re never been to Russia,  it’s definitely worth a visit. I can’t wait to go back.

Jessica Vickery is an MPH candidate in Community Health Education, and will receive her degree in May. In addition to serving as a TA and working in HCC’s Health Education department, Jessica serves as the intern coordinator for the IGH Novgorod Project. She “eats, breathes, and sleeps Russia”.

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