A Year that Wasn't Wasted
By Dana Buckman
By chance, Dr. Pope ended up being one of my professors at Illinois State University. He taught the section of a "Citizens and Governance" course that I signed up for in order to fulfill a general education requirement. I was a chemistry major, but I had an interest in politics, and I thought I would enjoy a forum in which I could discuss political issues. I chose Dr. Pope's class primarily because his course description differed from the general “learn about the three branches of government" approach.
I enjoyed the class and wanted to try to help others understand its sometimes tricky topics, and so when Dr. Pope asked me if I wanted to be a Student Assistant the next semester, I accepted the offer. I greatly enjoyed the opportunity to help students (and to joke around with Dr. Pope), and I ended up serving as a Student Assistant for something like five semesters. Dr. Pope often spoke about the American Home during that period and was persistent in urging me to apply to teach English there.
After finishing my undergraduate degree and spending a couple of years working, I decided to go to law school. However, the process for gaining admission to a good law school was going to take more than a year. Plus, as an undergrad, I had not managed to fit a study abroad experience into my busy schedule. Dr. Pope finally persuaded me that working at the American Home would be a great opportunity to learn about another culture and, through this, improve my understanding of American society. He assured me that working at the American Home would be a very worthwhile experience, even if I did not plan on pursuing a career directly related to Russia or teaching.
During the months between accepting a teaching position at the American Home and boarding my flight to Moscow, I found myself wondering if I had made a mistake. Despite Dr. Pope's assurances, I was worried that I was essentially putting my life on hold for a year and that there were probably more productive things that I could do during that period. In other words, I was afraid that I would not learn anything from this experience that would have any practical benefit for me in the future.
I now know that my concerns were unfounded. I obtained several very valuable practical benefits from the year I spent doing something completely outside of my future career area. In fact, I am not sure I would be where I am today if I had not worked at the American Home.
Dana teaching a class in the AH kitchen
To begin with, my American Home experience undoubtedly played a role in my getting admitted to Washington University in St. Louis School of Law, a highly competitive law school. Graduate study programs often look for especially “interesting” candidates, and I have no doubt that my year in Russia set me apart from other applicants. My time in Russia also helped me adjust to law school, where the teaching method and exams differed a great deal from anything I had experienced as an undergrad. If I could adjust to the culture shock of living in Russia, I knew I would have no problem adjusting to the unique features of law school. For example, law school instruction often involves being put on the spot during class and asked to answer complicated legal questions. My experience teaching at the AH – which also often involved being put on the spot during lessons and asked to explain tricky grammar points – no doubt helped me prepare for this aspect of law school.
Working at the American Home also provided especially valuable concrete benefits after I finished law school. To begin with, having the American Home teaching experience on my resume made me stand out in the overcrowded pool of law school graduates competing for a limited number of entry-level jobs. In every single interview I have had since 2008, I have been asked about my Russian experience. Sometimes the interviewer would ask about this experience in order to determine how it might relate to the job I was applying for. Most of the time, the interviewers were simply fascinated to learn something about what it had been like to live and work in Russia. Either way, in today’s job market, it was especially helpful to have something that set me apart from everyone else.
In addition to inviting questions about Russia, my American Home experience provided me with excellent examples that I could refer to when responding to some of the more important interview questions. When asked to discuss a time when I had to complete an assignment with a tight deadline, I could tell the interviewers about how I had to create lesson plans for multiple classes every day. When they asked if I had ever been in a situation where I had to use my creative skills to solve a problem, I could discuss the many times I had to think of a new and interesting way to convey a difficult grammar point. For example, I could tell them about the time I prepared a discussion activity that required the use of "phrasal verbs"* which my adult classes loved, but the teenagers in a separate section of this class had no interest in. I could go on to explain how I managed to quickly come up with a grammar game which, fortunately, kept the teenagers attention.
The fact that working at the American Home was truly challenging helped me develop the ability to learn new things very quickly – something that I have to do regularly in my current position as a law clerk for two judges who handle civil litigation. I am required to analyze several motions a day, each presenting distinct legal issues from the vast expanse of civil law. It is impossible to know everything in advance, and I must quickly identify the issues and how to analyze them, and then prepare a clear analysis for the judges to consider. Similarly, when I first started working at the American Home, I did not have a comprehensive knowledge of the finer points of English grammar. I had to quickly learn to understand the grammar concepts that we native speakers simply absorb while growing up. I had a very limited amount of time to figure out how to effectively teach the pertinent material in ways that worked for me and my students -- keeping in mind that one approach was not always going to work for everyone. Because I grew accustomed to such on-the-fly learning at the American Home, I improved my ability to think on my feet and rapidly adjust to new intellectual challenges.
Though the time I spent at the American Home was not always full of fun and games, as I look back, I know that the experience I gained and the specific skills I learned and developed have in fact played a very important role in getting me to where I am today, and will no doubt continue to benefit me in the years to come. I am glad I did not talk myself out of going to Russia. Even if I did not plan to teach English or work in a field related to Russia (or be an attorney, for that matter), I know that the year I spent teaching English in Vladimir had significant unexpected practical benefits.
*A note on "phrasal verbs." Wikipedia's definition: The term phrasal verb is commonly applied to two or three distinct but related constructions in English: a verb and a particle and/or a preposition co-occur, forming a single semantic unit. This semantic unit cannot be understood based upon the meanings of the individual parts in isolation, but rather it must be taken as a whole. Some examples:
Who is looking after the kids?
I ran into an old friend.
You should think it over.
You should not give in so quickly.