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Russia: Exchange Students Head Home With Hopes Of Cleaner Future

  • Bruce Keppel

Bellingham, Washington; 19 December 1996 (RFE/RL) - A trio of 19 year olds from Vladivostok has studied since September at Western Washington University, here in the small city of Bellingham, Washington -- today, just an increasingly popular and regularly scheduled plane ride from the Russian Far East to Seattle, a 90-minute drive along the coast to the south.

The three are Yelena Lebedko, Katya Titiaeva and Pavel Vorobyov. They come from the Far Eastern State University in Vladivostok, and now are heading home as the first Russian students to have attended Western Washington University in a continuing collaborative program of student exchanges. The program began last year when a Western graduate student named Sam Cushman studied in Vladivostok.

For Lebedko, Titiaeva and Vorobyov, the subject of study was ecology -- the relationships between different forms of life, including human, that share a single environment. The Russian Far East, closed to outsiders during the Cold War, has emerged from those years as an environmental disaster area that independent Russia now must deal with. The United States is hardly without pollution, but the public and private cleanup effort began a quarter of a century ago and valuable lessons were learned along the way.

The collaborative program between the two universities came about through the joint belief that both sides stood to benefit by studying one another and sharing their experiences.

Among those who helped set up the exchange program is Tim Douglas, a former mayor of Bellingham and, since the end of the Cold War, a frequent traveler to the Russian Far East. Douglas says he has learned through his visits that "the people in the Russian Far East are very attached to the land and its natural resources. But there's been a history of military and industrial development that has caused some severe environmental problems."

To Douglas, the exchange students "want to help address the environmental challenges. They want," he emphasizes, "to make a difference" in their society.

The three Russian students seem to agree with Douglas' assessment. "We have a lot of knowledge and our science is very good," explains Titiaeva. "We just need to apply it" to cleaning up the environment.

During nearly four months in Bellingham, the students have examined measures taken by a large paper mill in town, Georgia-Pacific West, to reduce harmful emissions and annoying odors in conformity with increasingly strict federal and state environmental standards. The Russians also studied pollution-prevention programs used by a local aluminum factory, Intalco Aluminum. Both plants are built on the shore of the Pacific.

But much of the students' time was spent on the hillside Western Washington University, overlooking Bellingham Bay. They worked in laboratories alongside students from different but related academic disciplines.

Bradley Smith, the director of Western's Huxley College of Environmental Studies, where the Russian students were enrolled, says this "integration" of different disciplines is a key principle in environmental studies these days.

"So," Smith explains, "we took them through the (paper mill's) waste-water treatment plant and to (the aluminum plant) to imprint upon them that there is hope for the future, that you don't have to be fatalistic, that you can do better."

Smith says that, in many ways, the Russian Far East is today where the United States was in 1970. Since then, environmental rules, costly litigation and, more recently, a growing business recognition that pollution signals inefficiency have greatly helped clean American skies and waters, though there remains a long way to make up for the environmental errors or oversights of rapid industrialization.

As for the students' experience here, Titiaeva says she expects to use the scientific terms learned at Western Washington University to aid her own research. Lebedko thinks the computer software she used at Western will help her work in Vladivostok -- as will as the exposure to the high-tech equipment and laboratories used here.

For Vorobyov, "everything for me here is new," he says, "so it will all be useful." He says he particularly enjoyed working in the ecology laboratory with students in other scientific disciplines. "I help them and they help me," he says. "It was great! I will remember this lab all my life."

As the young Russians prepared to leave Bellingham for Vladivostok, Huxley College's Dean Smith, who served as their faculty advisor at Western Washington, described the visitors as part of "the generation that's going to make a difference."