Normally, the student body president can be found in the Georgetown University Student Association office. But this past November, Georgetown’s student body president and those of 14 other universities visited Russia through a program run by the Presidential Bilateral Commission. Students engaged in dialogue with Russian leaders and businessmen in an attempt to further cross-cultural understanding between Russia and the United States. While the United States has regularly received Russian students and intellectuals, this was the first time Russia invited American students through the PBC program. This week, THE GUIDE sat down with Calen Angert (MSB ’11) to find out more about his experience in Russia.
How does an American student body president get invited to Russia?
I was trying to figure out the whole time why they chose us. I think it started [with] the Presidential Bilateral Commission, a group that encourages exchanges. The heads of each country’s segment of PBC, respectively, are Mike McFaul and Vladislav Surkov. They’ve always done these exchanges and the United States tends to bring over a very high number of Russian students, intellectuals, businessmen and women, congress — the deputies [People’s Deputies of the Russian Federation, Russia’s congress]. So there’s a whole plethora of people that go back and forth [between the United States and Russia] but this is the first time that they’ve decided to invite American students. I think they thought that student body presidents were up-and-comers, and so they invited 15 student body vice presidents. How they chose the 15, I don’t know. But I know Georgetown is a center for foreign relations so that was probably a magnet. They contacted Angela Stent first who is the director of the Center for Eurasian, Russian and East European Studies, and she pointed them to me and then I went to Russia for eight days.
What was the most fun part of the trip?
I really enjoyed meeting all of the other student body presidents. I think it was fascinating; the whole thing in its entirety made it worthwhile. Because if you’ve ever been to summer camp or any other quick meet event where you’re stuck with 14 people and you’re expected to get to know them quickly — that hasn’t always sat well with me because it feels very fictitious. But with this program we went over there and we’re meeting their senior people in the government and business. We were expected to come with a set of questions and represent U.S. students. So it felt like there was a sense of purpose there, and that created a lot of cohesion amongst the group; and I think there was some great dialogue. It would be tough to say what was the best part, because without having met with the people we met with or having that sense of direction, I don’t think that the rest of the trip would have filled out. Or if I had been there with a different group of people where that hadn’t happened as well, I don’t think that would have lent itself as well to the trip. I really think on all fronts, all pistons were fire.
What surprised you the most during the whole trip?
The way in which [PBC] would tackle questions, and the questions we were encouraged to ask. I thought it was going to be kind of a show, something much more fictitious, and just kind of have a glean over the surface [for] the entire trip. But in reality, we got down to the nitty-gritty of a lot of it. And I really felt [like I was] able to ask questions about human rights … and how these groups reviewed corruption — things that you would imagine would be hot button issue that you wouldn’t really want to touch. But there was a degree of candor there that I really appreciated.
Anything else about the trip?
It both made me appreciate my own culture and [Russia’s] as well, in a very different light. I think Russia is in a period of transition. I think it’s important to note … the Cold War was in its prime not too long ago. It’s important to keep that in mind. And it doesn’t justify anything that happens there, but it does provide some context. I think sometimes we see some of the freedoms and the institutions we enjoy in the [U.S.] government and otherwise, and we look at other countries and we think how can that be? I think this, at least, provides a little context as to the why. Again it’s no justification, but it did provide me with the ability to at least comprehend why it is the way it is.