School Ties Unraveled by Sept. 11

As well as rocking governments and economies worldwide, the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on New York and Washington have had a direct impact on the lives of more than 75 teenagers in small-town Russia, whose plans to travel to the United States for school exchanges have since unraveled.

Although virtually all exchange programs involving professionals and university students remain intact after the attacks, most U.S.-Russian youth programs have been halted, postponed or canceled due to security and travel concerns on the part of administrators and parents -- Russian and American alike.

"The Sept. 11 events affected our children's programs most of all," says Masha Lvova, assistant for educational exchanges at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow. "We had a lot of calls from parents who were concerned. Many exchanges had to postpone or cancel until better times."

Take an exchange program between high schools in Pennsylvania and Magadan, a city in Russia's Far East. If everything had gone according to plan, 20 Russian students would have left their homes and schools in Magadan this month to travel to Pennsylvania to attend Skyview High School and stay with the families of American students. In March, Skyview students were to travel to Magadan.

The terrorist attacks changed all that. On Sept. 12, the day after the attacks, school administrators in Magadan faxed letters to the program's coordinators in the United States expressing sympathy for the tragedy, but also asking for the exchange to stay on track.

But the Americans in charge of the program took to heart advice from the U.S. State Department -- whose Youth Programs Division in the Office of Citizen Exchanges this year distributed up to $150,000 to American organizations coordinating school exchanges for Russian and American teenagers -- to curtail travel overseas. They decided to cancel this year's exchange and permit those students who are still eligible and interested to participate next year.

"We decided we shouldn't travel with a visible group of high-school students," says Allan Miller, assistant principal at Skyview High School. "And parents of half the American students said they were not going to be interested in sending their kids to Russia in the spring. ... It was a pretty big disappointment to all of us."

News of the postponement crushed the students in Magadan, especially four who will graduate this year and who thus won't be able to participate next year, says Lyudmila Popova, one of the Russian exchange coordinators.

"The kids were very, very disappointed," she says. "They had been preparing for a long time. We were hoping to give this as a gift to the students who were graduating this year. A thank you from the school for working hard."

The attacks also affected an exchange program overseen by Reap International, a small, Michigan-based nonprofit organization. This year Reap selected seven schools in the Far Eastern republic of Buryatia to participate in an exchange. Forty-six Russian students were scheduled to travel to Michigan on Oct. 7.

On Sept. 11, Reap director William Mueller was in Russia, visiting his girlfriend and ironing out details of the upcoming exchange. When news of the terrorist attacks in Washington and New York hit, everyone started to fret, Mueller says.

Mueller began calling the State Department to see if the Russian students were still welcome in the United States, if he would be able to postpone their travels and, if so, how much changes would cost.

He also convened a three-day meeting to address the concerns of Russian participants and parents, some of whom were so worried about the danger in the United States that they threatened to pull their kids from the program if it went ahead as planned.

Mueller also received calls from the parents of the American participants, saying they did not think it was a good time to host foreigners, and his contacts at the Education Ministry in Buryatia told Mueller that they were worried about endorsing the exchange because they would look bad if something happened to the students.

"Everyone was semi-hysterical, except for the students," Mueller says. "I didn't see a single boy or girl who was fearful. They were pumped up for this."

In the end, even though he received a nod from the State Department to allow the exchange to proceed, Mueller decided to postpone the trip -- much to the dismay of the participants -- until next year. "When we finally made the decision, everyone was really disappointed. There were a lot of tears."

One program has managed to follow through on plans to deliver Russian students to the United States.

Right now fourteen students from a school in the northern Russian town of Severodvinsk are attending high school in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, as part of an environmental exchange program. The cities were selected for the exchange because both share large submarine yards that are undergoing peacetime conversions and facing problems with nuclear waste.

The Russian students are living with host families, taking classes and going on environmental field trips. Alex Herlihy, one of the American coordinators, reports that "culturally and socially [the Russian students' visit] has been a great success and that environmental awareness is growing, slowly but surely."

But it is uncertain whether their American counterparts will be able to visit Severodvinsk in the spring as planned. Right now, they are waiting in limbo, while Herlihy and others measure the security threats involved with travel.

"There is concern about students flying to Russia or anywhere this year," Herlihy says. "We have been able to avoid a blanket cancellation thus far. The parents are very strong in their belief that we should wait and see what the international situation is like in the new year before making a final decision."