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Warm reception in freezing Siberia for Fulbright scholar

Friday, January 18th, 2013 | Posted by

Hilary Cline, photographed at her family’s Sonoma winery. (John Burgess / The Press Democrat)

By DIANNE REBER HART / Sonoma Valley Correspondent

When Hilary Cline was named a Fulbright scholar, she was beyond excited – for a few days. Then the anticipation set in as she awaited her destination for the coming school year.

The Lewis & Clark College student knew she’d be teaching English somewhere in Russia. Her fingers were crossed that her assignment would take her to the warmer southern coastal area of the world’s largest country, known for regions of unforgiving subarctic temperatures.

“I was really frightened of the cold and of course I end up in Siberia,” says Cline, 22.

Yes, Siberia, where winter temperatures average 30 degrees Fahrenheit and often drop below zero. A long, long way from the comfortable Mediterranean climate of sunny Sonoma Valley where Cline grew up with her four sisters and two brothers, the children of Cline Cellars owners Fred and Nancy Cline.

If ever there was a moment of panic, it’s been warmed by Cline’s experience in Russia. She arrived in the small city of Khanty-Mansiysk in late September, welcomed by sunshine.

“Then it quickly went downhill,” she says with a quick laugh, sitting outdoors on a sunny winter afternoon at the family winery during a brief holiday visit.

For an adventurous young woman like Cline, the weather is just a tiny challenge. Forget that she endured one torturous day that dropped to minus-52 degrees Fahrenheit, a cold so extreme “that your eyelashes freeze.”

Cline bundles up in a big down coat and embraces her adventure. She teaches English at Yugra State University, one of Russia’s newest colleges – founded in 2001 – and lives in a studio apartment at the campus dormitory.

It’s a 20-hour trip from Sonoma Valley, a half-day ahead of California time, nearly 6,000 miles away and requiring three connections.

Cline is one of 1,700 U.S. citizens living abroad for the 2012/2013 academic year through the Fulbright U.S. Student Program, an international exchange program sponsored by the U.S. government. Her scholarship covers travel and living expenses, with a monthly stipend for her work teaching English conversation and intercultural communication classes.

She also serves as an advisor to the campus English Club and American Film Club.

Cline earned a bachelor’s degree last year from Lewis & Clark College, with a major in psychology and a minor in Russian, considered by the Defense Language Institute in Monterey as one of the most difficult languages for native English-speakers to master. The institute estimates that 780 hours of immersion instruction are needed just to achieve intermediate fluency in Russian.

“I can have an intelligent conversation in Russian but I can’t claim fluency,” Cline says. “The Russian language is so complicated I think I’d have to live there for ten years.”

Plus, there’s formal Russian and then there’s slang.

“They use crazy slang words and swear words,” she says. “They have a very large vocabulary.”

Cline’s interest in Russian came almost by accident. She hadn’t declared a major when she arrived at Lewis & Clark College in Portland, Ore. as a freshman. She was interested in languages and figured she’d study Spanish but didn’t like the early-morning time slot for Spanish so instead registered for a later Russian class.

Despite spending more than a week just learning the 33-letter (and symbol) Russian alphabet, Cline was hooked; impressed with both the language and her engaging professor who’d emigrated from Russia as a single mother.

“I thought it would be really interesting. It really was like discovering a whole new culture,” Cline recalls.

As a college student, she jumped into her Russian studies, joined the campus Russian Club and volunteered as a one-on-one tutor teaching English to emigrants, many of them Russian.

She traveled to Russia twice during college, first for a summer working with foster children at a small village outside Moscow and then for a semester abroad in St. Petersburg.

The 2008 Sonoma Valley High School graduate has always been a strong student but says she “wasn’t a 4.0 or anything.” The prestigious Fulbright scholarship is based on merit, with academics, professional achievement and leadership abilities all considered.

Cline is an international ambassador for the United States, one who considers Russians warm, generous and welcoming, hardly the stereotype from the Cold War era or the communist-regime image of stern Russians waiting in long lines just to purchase a loaf of bread.

“They’re the most hospitable people in the world,” Cline says.

Nearly all her students have invited her to their homes or for site-seeing excursions around Khanty-Mansiysk, a remote city of about 100,000 residents.

The city has been modernized in recent years with the development of oil fields in the region. Cline says she can see “an orange glow” from the oil drilling in the area, home to about 70 percent of Russia’s expansive oil fields.

But even with modern, towering buildings that “look sort of like spaceships,” technology remains slow moving in Siberia. There are few computers at Cline’s college, the campus is without Wi-Fi connection, Internet access is unreliable and students commonly turn in papers written in longhand. Should she need a projector for one of her lessons, Cline needs to request it a month in advance.

“I’ve learned to teach using no technological aides,” she says.

Still, though, the Siberian people are modern and fashionable and have an insatiable interest in the United States. Cline can’t count how many times she’s been asked about McDonald’s or the teen “house parties” her Russian students have seen in American movies or TV shows.

Cline is immersing herself in the Russian culture. She’s been introduced to some “delicious” Russian foods like pelmeni (a meat-filled dumpling), piroshki (baked stuffed buns) and borscht (a hearty soup) and has learned to avoid other dishes, like specialty salads rich with beets, herring and mayonnaise.

She loves Russian literature – Nicolai Gogol, Leo Tolstoy and poet Anna Akhmatova are among her favorites – and hasn’t tired of the Russian language, which she finds “really fascinating, really an amazing language.”

Not even mid-way into her Fulbright year, Cline already has discovered a bond with her Russian counterparts.

“It’s so different from the American culture and at the same time there are a lot of similarities,” she says. “I’m discovering all these new things about this mysterious culture.”

The highlight, she says, is getting to know her students, fellow faculty members and the Russian people around Siberia.

“The students are so hospitable. They really make me feel like a valued member of the university,” Cline says. “And the staff has been very welcoming.”

When her teaching year ends in May – or when her Visa expires in July – Cline will return to Sonoma Valley to plot her next step. She’s thinking about graduate school, maybe translating Russian or linguistics or even one day pursuing a career as a foreign officer with the State Department.

For now, Cline is enjoying her Fulbright adventure, grateful for the global opportunity to share her talents in Russia – and looking forward to warmer days ahead.

Writer Spotlight

Dianne Reber Hart is our Sonoma correspondent.

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