Release Date: August 20, 2015
BUFFALO, N.Y. -- There is a photo of University at Buffalo Fulbright scholar Courtney Burroughs standing in the middle of the immense, frozen Volga River. It’s a dramatic shot, humbling even for Western New Yorkers and others familiar with winter, for its seemingly endless, merciless expanse of ice and snow. That picture almost emanates bone-chilling cold.
What’s equally memorable is Burroughs: She looks radiant, alive, jubilant, thriving around all that whiteness in what appears to be anything but a hospitable environment.
This photo — and many more she took during her nine months in the formerly closed Russian military city of Saratov — provides a shorthand version of yet another UB graduate who ended her undergraduate career as part of an elite, scholarly fraternity. She’s the latest UB student who left familiar surroundings for an adventure that was profoundly formative and as fun as it was challenging, both professionally and personally. After teaching college students English in Saratov for nine months, she returned a different — or maybe enhanced — person than she was at graduation.
“You have to grow up faster in Russia,” says Burroughs, a 2014 graduate of UB who has since left her hometown of Penfield, a suburb of Rochester, to start law school at the University of Miami. “You have to be more independent and mature.”
And like most of her UB Fulbright colleagues, Burroughs acknowledges she never knew the Fulbright opportunity existed when she entered UB, much less considered herself Fulbright material.
“It was incredibly valuable” Burroughs says. “It was incredible to work and be with the Russian people because for many of them, I was the first American they had ever met.
“I had a really great time. People would just stop you on the street and talk to you because they knew you didn’t belong. They wouldn’t know you were American, but they would just know you weren’t Russian. So they would talk to you and ask you questions about the U.S. A lot of people wanted to know how to get an American visa. Or just general questions. What is your life like? Do you like Rihanna?”
Anyone looking for glimpses into Burrough’s Fulbright experience has that photo. Another certain way to measure those nine months is to talk to her. She sounds much older than her 22 years. Nothing like the Type A personality she said she was before she left. Nothing like the young woman who showed up in her dorm room in Saratov and found it not only had no hot water, it sometimes had no running water at all “for no explainable reason,” she says. Or who discovered the food served in Saratov the majority of the time is a combination of beets, potatoes, cucumbers, tomatoes, onions, carrots and buckwheat.
Her nine months there — from September 2014 through this past June — are chronicled in her extensive blog, Courtney in Russia, complete with quality photos. It’s a permanent record that earned her praise from Elizabeth Colucci, coordinator of fellowships and scholarships for UB, whose office has been instrumental in identifying and nurturing students competing for Fulbrights and other national and international fellowships in recent years. Burroughs is one of more than 90 UB students to receive Fulbright scholarships in recent years.
“Courtney’s blog about her year in Russia was an amazing insight into a Fulbright experience,” Colucci says. “Courtney immersed herself in the Russian life and was able to be a true ambassador of American life to her students. The yearlong cultural exchange that a person gains from a Fulbright year is unique.”
Unique is putting it mildly. The fabled Russian winter was in full force in Saratov, which although located about 500 kilometers south of Moscow, still lived up to its billing, even for someone who grew up in an area known for its snow.
“Strong winds come off the Volga because the river is so huge,” Burroughs says. “In the winter in Saratov, it completely freezes over. So many people go out and ski and ride snowmobiles and walk on it.
“It got to negative 37 some days. That’s the coldest it got. Usually, it just stayed between negative 10 to negative 20. From November to March it was still really cold. But the brutal part was late December, January, February and the beginning of March. You just get used to it and everyone goes about their life as normal. Everybody wears fur coats because when it’s that cold, you have to. Other coats are too expensive, so they wear their inherited fur coats.”
Buffalo gets more snow than Saratov, she says. But there is ice everywhere.
“The sidewalks have 6 inches of ice, just because people can’t keep up with it. Everything freezes so quickly and some people don’t want to shovel the sidewalks. I must have fallen daily. At first it was like ‘Oh my goodness, this is terrible.’
“But it just becomes comical. You would see big men pretending to be all tough. They would have their Russian face on and they would just wipe out in the snow. The babushkas would stop to laugh at them. It just happens to everyone.”
The extreme winter would trigger some truly memorable scenes. Go to the Feb. 11 ski race entry of “Courtney in Russia” to see the “Dancing Babushka Chicken” and the “overly competitive Tug-of-War babushka” competition that went on for five hours.
When Burroughs arrived at her university dormitory, there was no heat because Russians use hot water for heat. And because there was no hot water, there was no heat. Burroughs eventually moved to an apartment — one room with a small kitchen and small bathroom. But when she asked the other students about a university dormitory without heat, they just shrugged. “Oh yeah,” they would answer in Russian. “It just happens.”
Then there was the 17-hour train ride from Moscow to Saratov. And the hour-long lines in the post office when the Russian workers would shut down the work flow and get actively involved in arguments about people’s places in line. Burroughs quickly learned how to defend herself from cut-ins in Russian. Then there was the sign-up sheet for a shower in her original dormitory. “Not a hot shower, just a shower,” Burroughs says. “There were only 12 sign-up spots a day for a shower.”
“You appreciate everything,” she says. “I realized I took everything for granted.”
To be sure, there was much more to Burroughs’ Russian experience than the jolt in her standard of living. She traveled to St. Petersburg and talked to people almost 100 years old who lived through the German barricade. The city, then Leningrad, was under siege for 872 days. Historians estimate 1.5 million people died — largely civilians — the largest loss of life ever known to a modern city. “One woman would tell me stories of how every male person she knew left to go to war and only one or two came back,” Burroughs says.
“And the people are really friendly,” she says. “People think Russians are cold and rude. Not at all. At first, they are very skeptical of a stranger. But after five minutes, they invite you to their homes and they want you to meet their grandparents. Once you have a friend in Russia, that’s a friend for life.
“People ask me “What was your experience like in Russia?’ Every day was an adventure.”
Colucci points proudly to Burrough’s testimony and the growth and richness her nine months in Saratov had on her life. And there is a clear message Colucci is not coy about pointing out.
“Courtney simultaneously applied to law school and to be a Fulbright English teaching assistant,” she says. “The year spent in Russia has given her international insights that she will bring to her law studies.
“I hope other UB students consider this opportunity.”