Those who watched the popular TV show “Friends” might remember Phoebe’s boyfriend, David, who left America to spend years in Minsk on a research grant.
Although an IU East professor also has received a grant to travel to the capital of Belarus, his experience will differ in several ways from the TV show plot.
Steven Petersheim’s family will stay with him as he teaches classes, and they’ll all return in four months.
Petersheim, an assistant professor of English, has received a Fulbright U.S. Scholar Award that allows him to teach at Belarusian State University and soak up the culture into December.
“I’ll definitely be in learning mode,” Petersheim said. “I will be learning from them and hope they can learn from me.”
During the spring semester, he’ll share what he’s learned with the IU East community.
Petersheim, a Maryland native, came to IU East five years ago to teach American literature after earning his doctorate at Baylor University.
He said he’s excited and thrilled about the “huge honor” of receiving the Fulbright grant.
During his trip to Belarus, Petersheim aims to see how other higher-education systems work and how U.S. literature is received and discussed abroad, especially in eastern European countries that are building democracies. In exchange, he’ll help Belarus students learn about American culture through literature and film.
Belarus is an eastern European country bordered by Russia to the east, Poland to the west, Ukraine to the south and Latvia and Lithuania to the north. It formerly was part of the Soviet Union.
Petersheim, wife Beth and their four young children are leaving in late August for the Western-influenced city of Minsk.
“It’s the perfect time for them to soak up another culture and get immersed in it,” Petersheim said of his children.
Petersheim is one of more than 800 Fulbright Scholars conducting research, teaching or providing expertise abroad during the 2017-18 school year. The scholars are considered unofficial ambassadors for their nations.
He is IU East’s first Fulbright Scholar since Joanne Passet, a history professor, went to Hue University in Vietnam during 2008-09.
Legislation by U.S. Sen. J. William Fulbright (D-Ark.) led to the creation of an international educational exchange program in 1946 for non-political idea sharing.
Petersheim went through two U.S. reviews and two foreign reviews after applying for the Fulbright award.
He’s submitted syllabi for classes about the U.S. Civil War, 19th century American Renaissance writers and contemporary U.S. literature, and is waiting to hear what the university wants him to teach.
When Petersheim applied for the Fulbright, he requested to go to Austria, thinking he’d be a good match because of his fluency in German since childhood. Instead, the Russian-speaking Belarus selected Petersheim for the Fulbright program.
However, Petersheim won’t have to present his lessons in Russian. Students have to know English for the program he’s teaching. And, Petersheim does have a little Russian-language experience because he taught English to Ukrainian immigrants years ago in New York. His family is learning the Cyrillic alphabet and language to prepare for their trip.
He said he believes he’s the first literature professor to go to Belarus as a Fulbright Scholar. The nation is working to improve its higher education in recent years, joining other European nations in 2015 in the Bologna Process to ensure comparable standards and quality.
Fulbright Scholars are often asked to give presentations at the universities where they teach as well as for community groups and other regional universities, so he’s looking forward to those opportunities to share American culture. He might have help from a translator for public talks.
Transition for family, nation
Petersheim has been learning as much about Belarus as possible before his family’s trip.
Belarus deeply felt the impact of the 1986 Chernobyl disaster because winds sent much of the nuclear fallout north, just over the nearby border with the Ukraine. The incident remains part of Belarus residents’ psyche and influences the way people see themselves, he said.
Residents are also working through how their freedoms were impacted while part of the former Soviet Union, and they still face some challenges today, Petersheim said.
He said he believes those at the university are interested in 19th century American literature because it reflects the development of democracy in the young nation. Much of the literature from that era shows Americans’ anxiety as the country’s identity is being shaped, he noted.
Petersheim said he’s learned he’ll be able to speak as a private citizen in Belarus and can discuss America’s current political climate and compare it with other nations.
“One thing I’ll love to bring back is how America looks to people who have not grown up with democracy as a foregone conclusion,” Petersheim said.
After his trip, he hopes to be able to take a more international approach to discussing what it means to be an American. As more citizens question the accuracy of today’s news reports, Petersheim said he believes students will see the information he presents about his first-hand overseas experience as authentic.
He hopes to share how Belarus students respond to literature that IU East students read and compare their perspectives. Petersheim expects his Belarus students to have some of the same questions and some different ones from American students based on their life experiences. He wants to see the books he’s read repeatedly through the eyes of Belarus students and believes those discussions will prompt him to think differently.
“I think that will deepen the study of literature for me and my future students,” Petersheim said. “It will make me a better teacher. I already think outside of the box, but this added experience will help me do even more than I do now, from lived experience rather than philosophical speculation.”
He said Minsk is the nation’s most Westernized city, and through pictures and reports, he’s learned it’s very clean, well-kept and pleasant. It has an opera company as well as hiking and biking trails, old cathedrals and a new shopping mall.
To help his children get excited about their trip, he’s shown them a photo of Minsk’s Ferris wheel, which is one of the world’s tallest.
The Petersheims plan to spend plenty of time in the city’s parks and hope to meet families there.
Petersheim’s oldest child, daughter Mikayla, recently completed third grade at the Hibberd Building, and son Ethan finished kindergarten at Charles.
Mikayla expressed some initial concern about leaving her friends for the fall semester, but she and Ethan are now more enthused about their trip after seeing photos of palaces and castles. She’s been collecting addresses to send postcards to her friends at home. The Petersheims are deciding whether Mikayla and Ethan will attend an English-speaking international school or be guided by Beth and online lessons. Younger sisters, Abigail, 4, and Johanna, born last October, are less aware of the family’s plans.
Petersheim is excited to share Belarus’ culture with his wife and children. One destination on his list is the National Library of Belarus, which opened its 22-story building about 10 years ago. The main structure is a glass rhombicuboctahedron, which means it has 18 square faces and eight triangular faces that shine from natural light in daytime and LED lights at night.
He’s reading as much as possible to prepare for his visit. One book he’s studying is the autobiography of artist Marc Chagall, who Petersheim has long admired. Chagall, who grew up in nearby Vitebsk and died in 1985, became known as a French painter, printmaker, and designer. His childhood home is now the Chagall Art Center.
The family has even researched recipes for some foods they’ll find in Minsk, such as potato pancakes, and made them at home.
As he completed graduate school and began searching for work, one reason Petersheim was attracted to IU East was the opportunity to teach many types of courses.
Another incentive was a good place for a growing family. He said his children love Richmond’s parks and he’s intrigued by the city’s jazz heritage.
When they first came to Richmond, the couple attended “Les Miserables” at Richmond Civic Theatre.
“We were blown away – it was more than we expected,” Petersheim said of the community theater.
Coincidentally, Petersheim is now rehearsing to be the Constable in Richmond Civic Theatre’s August performances of “Fiddler on the Roof” featuring Russian and Jewish culture.