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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Expert Linguist With the Ear of Governments

MTAmerican Councils' Dan Davidson advocates breaking barriers via cultural exchange.
It was the launch of Sputnik in 1957 that sparked 12-year-old Dan Davidson's interest in science and the Russian and German languages.

"If you were serious about life you were serious about science, and if you were serious about science there were two languages you would have to know -- Russian and German," Davidson recalled on a recent visit to Moscow.

It was not long before his interest shifted away from science and on to Russian literature. Today, Davidson is professor of Russian and Second Language Acquisition at Bryn Mawr College, Pennsylvania. He has testified before the U.S. Congress on U.S. foreign-language education policy, and the governments of Belarus, Russia, Ukraine, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan have all sought his expertise.

But one organization that Davidson's name has been associated with for almost 30 years, is American Councils. Born of his frustrations with getting access to Russia during the Cold War years, the Washington-based organization operates study-abroad programs for students, independent travelers and educational professionals. Since Davidson co-founded the organization in 1974, it has enabled nearly 30,000 Russians and Americans to learn about each other's language and culture.

Davidson made his own first contact with Russians in 1966 when, as a Fulbright scholar studying in Bonn, he was able to travel to Moscow and Leningrad with a group of German students.

"I was the only member of the group who spoke Russian. I had access to people that the rest of the tourists didn't," Davidson recalled.

Then, in 1972, the same year that Davidson received his Harvard Ph.D. in Slavic languages and literatures, President Richard Nixon visited the Soviet Union, signing the Nixon-Brezhnev protocols that made it possible for American scholars interested in Russia to cooperate with Russian educational institutions.

Davidson was one of the first to benefit from the new agreements, studying in Moscow during the summer and then for a year at Moscow State University and the Pushkin State Institute of Russian Language from 1975 to 1976.

It was between these visits that Davidson co-founded what was later to become American Councils. Known at the time as the American Council of Teachers of Russian, the organization set about advancing the study of English and Russian and strengthening links between scholars and educators in language, literature and area studies in the United States and the Soviet Union. In 1975 ACTR arranged for 10 to 15 U.S. citizens to come to Moscow every semester to study Russian.

Making it possible for Russians to go and study in the United States was more of a challenge. Davidson still remembers vividly the difficulties of negotiating with Soviet officials and recalls in flawless Russian their names and patronymics.

Faced with the opposition of the Soviet authorities, Davidson and ACTR had to be content with running one-way exchanges until finally in 1986 bilateral student exchanges were allowed to begin and students from the Herzen Pedagogical University in St. Petersburg were allowed to visit the United States.

Two years later, the first high school exchanges took place through the High School Academic Partnership Program announced by Presidents Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev.

"For the first time the American authorities allowed American families to host kids from the U.S.S.R. and the Soviet authorities allowed Soviet families to host Americans," Davidson said.

In 1992 the U.S. government began to sponsor an exchange program of a much greater scale. Under the Future Leaders Exchange Program, every year American Councils recruits around 1,500 students, aged between 15 and 17, from former Soviet republics to spend a year living with host families and studying in local high schools.

"FLEX does something that the other programs can't do. Because of the age group that it targets it affects the formation of attitude and belief structures," Davidson said.

It is not only the students who benefit from the program.

"The impact on the host families is multiple. Students who come have an impact on the entire communities and increase their awareness about Russia," Davidson said. "You could not do a better thing for America, which is historically isolated."

Davidson's fascination with Russia led to him following a career that has contributed to the development of a different kind of relationship between the two former Cold War rivals. Now a foreign member of the prestigious Russian Academy of Sciences, he is also currently advising the Education Ministry on its new standardized test that is due to be introduced for Russian high school graduates. And funding for American Councils programs now comes not just from the U.S. government but from a variety of other sources, including the governments of Russia and Uzbekistan, the World Bank, and philanthropist George Soros.

"We are very honored to have been part of this process of 'normalizing' somehow the relationship between our two countries," Davidson said.