Natalia Shevchenko: Making Connections
Natalia Shevchenko wants to make the world a smaller, more connected place. As director of Willamette's Language Learning Center, Shevchenko is the inspiration behind two global projects - Willamette World News, an online newspaper that brings the world to Willamette and Willamette Abroad, online weblogs or "blogs" written by study-abroad students who bring Willamette to the world.
"A little more than two years ago, we started Willamette World News," says Shevchenko. She's sitting in the basement of Smullin Hall surrounded by dozens of computers in the Language Learning Center (LLC) lab. "Every year, Willamette has all these wonderful foreign students from all over the world and we thought Willamette World News would create the perfect opportunity for them to express their opinions and ideas and share with Willamette and the world at large news about what's happening in their home countries."
At the beginning of the school year, the foreign student correspondents, many of whom work as university teaching assistants, write personal profiles to introduce themselves to the Willamette community. Then, every two weeks, each correspondent researches newspapers and magazines for important issues impacting their countries. They write a short summary/editorial about each article and provide links to the articles.
The editorials and articles provide interesting insights into foreign countries and cultures. A recent sampling from Willamette World News included, among others, an article on British stamps honoring the upcoming wedding of Prince Charles and Lady Camilla Parker Bowles; one on Mexico's famous shaman, Maria Sabina; an article on French President Jacques Chirac defying President George Bush's China arms policy; and a story on Bulgaria's March 1 holiday that features martenitsas, tassels of red and white woven threads said to ward off evil or symbolize the coming of spring. The website currently has correspondents from Bulgaria, Germany, Ukraine, Mexico, Britian, the Netherlands and France.
Moragne Bellanger, a teaching assistant from France, says her contributions to the online newspaper help her stay connected with her home country. "I like to keep an eye on what's going on in my country and Willamette World News serves as a link for me between home and here. It also helps me when I feel homesick because it makes me feel closer to home."
One of the goals of the online news source is to help students, faculty and staff at Willamette break out of the infamous "Willamette bubble" that insulates the campus from the rest of the world. "The U.S. is isolated and the Northwest is far away from things," says Shevchenko, who herself first came as a student to the U.S. from her native Russia. "Americans really don't know much about the world. We want to make Willamette students and the rest of the community more aware about the world."
None of the correspondents are paid to contribute to Willamette World News. Anna Pinto, a student from India, has been posting on the site for several months. "I enjoy informing people about what's happening in my country," she says. "I want to give people a broader perspective."
An improvement Shevchenko hopes to make in the near future is an interactive discussion board that would allow readers to comment about the articles they read. "The contributors and I get lots of emails from readers saying they read this article or that, but we'd like to have a single space where we could create a dialog. Our goal is to keep the discussion going and see how the community develops around it.
While Willamette World News brings the world to our doorstep, the Willamette Abroad blog project brings Willamette to the world. Blogs (also called weblogs) are online interactive journals that allow others to read and comment. Every Willamette student who studies abroad is given a blog account and instructions on how to post comments and photos on his or her personal blog. The Willamette Abroad blog project, now in its second semester, is proving tremendously popular with students.
I'm back in ViÃ±or the start of a new semester. Wow. It is so much different than the first time around!! I think back to July when I came and everything was new and scary and I had no clue what I was doing and was afraid to shut the colectivo doors hard, hahha, and now everything is just how it is, normal, what I expect. - Blog entry by Torey Jovick, Chile
The blogs help Willamette students stay connected with the University. Stacy West, a junior rhetoric and media studies major, who lived and studied last fall in Quito, Ecuador, was a regular blogger. "I used my blog almost every week to report things that were fun or important that I wanted to share with my friends and family," she says.
Cali King, a sophomore who is currently in Galway, Ireland, also finds blogging an easy way to stay connected. "My blog is not only my personal journal, but a way to share my stories and adventures with my family and friends back home," she writes in an email interview. "It is a simple way to keep my thoughts and helps limit the mass emails I felt I had to send out to everyone. Since communication by phone is difficult, it also keeps my expenses down."
After a short night, the bustling of our fellow hostelees was not a welcomed noise. Breakfast was short, but complimentary, merely toast and tea to start the day. Having not nearly enough caffeine in our bodies, Seth (Sara Beth) and I took to the streets with the 15 minutes we had before we had to meet everybody in the lobby. It was a beautiful morning, absolutely stunning. The sun was shining brilliantly over the building roofs and the air was crisp and fresh. We soon found that there was nothing open. We passed a breakfast place... I stuck my head in and the guy said, "Sorry we're not open." I responded, "Is there anywhere around here to get coffee?" He dropped what he was doing. "Coffee," he said. "Oh, I'll make ya a cup of coffee." He made us both lattÃ© I pulled out my wallet to pay and he shook us away. "It's on me." - Blog entry by Cali King, Chile
When she returned to campus, West found that her blog entries helped her translate her experiences. "When I came back from Ecuador, people would ask, 'How was it?' My mind would run with so many stories, experiences and adventures that I didn't know what to say. People who'd read my blog would ask real questions that led to real conversations about my experiences in Ecuador."
I am learning a lot of Spanish because I am forced to speak it all the time. I spend a lot of time talking to my host mom about Spanish culture. I have not had any problems understanding anyone, just problems trying to express my ideas correctly. I am sure it will get easier as time goes on. - Blog entry, Sarah Anderson, Spain
Not every country is technologically advanced enough for students to take advantage of blogging. Eric Swinn, who is studying in the Ukraine, is an avid chronicler of his study abroad experience. However, internet access in the Ukraine is not readily available and connections are slow. Swinn writes his entries and pastes them into an email to his girlfriend at Willamette. She, in turn, posts his messages on his blog.
I am in Simferopol, Ukraine right now, and it's pretty wonderful. Let me tell you a little about it. The weather is a lot like I bet it is in Oregon right now. It's sunny, with occasional rain, and the trees are all green, there are fruit stands lining the street, with fresh watermelons, onions, cucumbers, peppers, etc., which everyone buys daily and uses to make salad at dinner.
I live in a typical, but nice, apartment complex behind the Gostinitsa Mosckva, or 'Hotel Moscow,' where my host mother works, and I believe where President Nixon stayed when visiting this area, or so is the talk around town. My apartment is about a 15-20 minute walk from my university this semester, and will be about a 15 minute marshrutka, or a sort of mini-bus, ride from my school next semester. The walk to the university is nice, and makes it way through the university park, which has received a beautiful new gate and pathway this year. - Eric Swinn, Ukraine
Shevchenko says reading the blogs, which are linked on the Office of International Education's website, is a great way for students interested in study abroad to get a taste of international life. "The blogs are an amazing resource for students considering studying abroad," she says. "They're also a wonderful way for prospective students to learn about Willamette's international programs."
Students are free to write anything they'd like in their blogs. Some of the entries are about day-to-day happenings; others are more reflective and philosophical. All of them are uncensored and unedited by the university. "They need to be aware that everyone - from the University president to their parents and possibly even future employers - can read what they write," says Shevchenko. "Our job is to just create the space and see what comes out of it."
Blogging also has a dark side. A few of the archived blog entries have been hacked by spammers and are filled with automated ads for everything from pornography to cheap mortgages. The Language Learning Center is addressing the problem with new software that has stronger spam filters. Student bloggers can also clean off spam entries or, if spam becomes too great a problem, turn off the comment feature all together.
Shevchenko insists that Willamette World News and Willamette Abroad are just the beginning. "Technology has made this exciting experiment possible." In the future, she'd like to see professors incorporate the technology into their courses. She also envisions contributions from correspondents from campuses around the world sharing their viewpoint and experiences with Willamette and the Willamette community reflecting our own unique perspectives back to them. "These are links to the world. Anything is possible."