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Russian student finds Tech with a little help from friends

By Jill Elswick

Spectrum Volume 20 Issue 03 - September 11, 1997

Siberia. To most Americans, the word conjures images of frozen, uninhabitable tundras where Russian political exiles and their brutal jailors struggle to keep warm enough to survive.

But Valeriy `Val' Ovechkin, a 21-year-old Virginia Tech grad student, spent his whole life in Siberia--comfortably. He grew up in Kamchatka, the mountainous northeastern peninsula of the former U.S.S.R. separated from Alaska by the Bering Sea. Like our 49th state, Kamchatka has only two months of summer each year, hosts an indigenous Eskimo population, and is the center of much volcanic activity.

For his undergraduate education, Ovechkin traveled nearly 3,000 miles southwest to Novosibirsk, Siberia's largest and most modern city, located on the region's vital Trans-Siberian Railway. During his childhood and college years, he never gave much thought to the weather. "You learn to tolerate low temperatures very well. The air is very dry," he said.

While studying physics and mathematics at Northern Novosibirsk University, Ovechkin began to work with computer systems--and discovered a new interest. With an aim toward obtaining a Ph.D. in computer science, he decided apply to universities in Canada and the United States.

What made him want to travel to the other side of the world to study? "It was my dream. I don't know why."

Ovechkin researched 26 universities, eventually narrowing the list down to seven. Virginia Tech was among his top choices. He began to get in touch with faculty members; Clifford Shaffer, associate professor of computer science, and Ovechkin corresponded via mail for several months. "I was surprised to find very welcome response to my letters," Ovechkin said.

Virginia Tech's website also had a lot to do with Ovechkin's interest in studying here. He was impressed with the website's amount of information and its photographs of campus life. Everything about Tech's environment--its architecture, layout, Hokie-stone buildings--seemed to be "conducive to studying."

On August 11, Ovechkin landed in Washington, D.C. It had been a long, exhausting, 48-hour trip from Novosibirsk to Moscow to Ireland to the U.S. Ovechkin's first impression of America was the frenetic activity of Dulles airport's automated shuttles moving people between planes and terminals.

At the information counter, Ovechkin tried to find out how to catch a bus to Richmond. Overhearing Ovechkin's conversation with the airport employee, an American named Rex approached and said, "I know you are from Russia. Do you know a guy named Roman?" Roman, a Russian exchange student who had flown in on the same plane as Ovechkin, was to be a guest in Rex's family. Ovechkin helped Rex find Roman; Rex invited Ovechkin to join them for dinner.

In the airport parking lot, Ovechkin experienced the "humid, hot air" of a southern American summer for the first time. "It was about 31 Celsius [95 Fahrenheit]," he said. "It was very hot."

Thanks to Rex, Ovechkin got dinner, a shower, and a ride to the bus station that would put him en route to Richmond. From Richmond, Ovechkin traveled to Christiansburg, where, he said, "I knew from the web that the Two Town Trolley stopped at the courthouse."

At the courthouse, Ovechkin met another friendly American who would help him find his destination in Blacksburg. Randy Wirtz, deputy county administrator for Montgomery County, happened to be in the courthouse lobby when Ovechkin wandered in to ask the receptionist how to catch the Two Town Trolley. Wirtz recalls thinking, "This poor guy. He's just in from another country. He may need a little help." So Wirtz gave Ovechkin a ride to Virginia Tech.

A 1972 graduate of Virginia Tech, Wirtz majored in history. On the way to campus, he and Ovechkin discussed Russian history, noting Moscow's 850th anniversary this year. The two immediately got along well.

Wirtz had already decided to be a host for Tech's International Friendship Program, run by the Cranwell International Center. Now he wanted to find out if he could request to be Ovechkin's host. So he called Jackie Nutter, who heads the program, and she arranged it.

To Nutter, Ovechkin's fortuitous meeting with Wirtz at the courthouse perfectly exemplifies the purpose of the International Friendship Program. "It's like he [Wirtz] realized how important it is to be a host, seeing this young man who really needed basic friendship and help being shown around," she said. Wirtz and his family have since sent care packages and even obtained a bike for Ovechkin.

But you don't have to be a family or have a lot of money to host an international student. All it takes is being a friend--going out a few times a month for lunch, dinner, or a movie. Home cooking and sight-seeing are also popular activities.

A host becomes a sort of interpreter, answering questions about American life, customs, and language. The international student becomes the host's window on an intriguing, far-away world. The exchange is mutually beneficial, and always remembered.

The International Friendship Program takes into account interests, dietary requirements, and religious issues when matching students with hosts. Hosts are still needed for this year. For more information, please call Nutter at 1-9066 or e-mail her at jnutter@vt.edu.