Dan Davidson Fellowship Essay: Samuel McKnight

McKnight_photo_1“Russia and U.S.-Russia relations are what get me out of bed in the morning.” That’s what I told a political science class at Roanoke College, my home institution. The professor, after having heard about my experience and read some of my written work, had invited me to share about my thought and experience with his class. I was elated. Preparing my remarks, I reflected as far back as high school, when I spent afternoons at an international scouting event in Japan talking to Russians, to my first four classes in Russian language at Roanoke College, to the day I received notice that I had won the State Department’s Critical Language Scholarship to continue my studies in Vladimir, Russia; and especially to the four months I spent in St. Petersburg with American Councils’ RLASP program. To date, there have been very few experiences in my life that have had a greater and concurrent impact on my intellectual, personal, and professional development as my time participating in the AC’s program in St. Petersburg.

American Councils’ emphasis on cultural as well as language immersion creates an environment like very few others. Students quickly form a cohort and are able to grow together. Each individual is being changed and formed by the environment, but as a group, the common experience engenders a sense of community among students. With this as a backdrop, I found myself quickly immersing in the local community of St. Petersburg. I took on a volunteer internship at ABC Magic, a local English school for children, where I befriended one of the teachers. He welcomed me into his home multiple times, we collaborated on his English as well as my Russian, traveled outside of St. Petersburg to his favorite mansions, and we remain friends today. He introduced me to a new side of Russia—a youthful, engaging, and culture-loving side that seems to never make it into Western media. He let me into his life and community, purposefully helping me to understand more fully the country he calls home. To be sure, these two communities—American Councils students and my volunteer internship—were very separate. But in retrospect, I think they were mutually reinforcing, and each helped me understand the other differently. By engaging with Russian language and culture with a group of Americans, I took on the role of an observer, an outsider coming to learn. Through my friendship with the teacher, I was afforded the opportunity to step inside, as it were, to interact with a quotidian yet lively side of Russia that many Americans do not see. My observations of Russia through the RLASP program with Americans were nuanced by my relationship with my new friend, and my view of my friend’s life and work was underpinned by the cultural and historical knowledge taught to me at Herzen University. Together, my worldview and understanding of Russia grew and developed for the better.


Among the most rewarding aspects of the RLASP program was the opportunity to meet with a language partner. My language partner was among the most joyful people I have met in during college; her care for language (she is a Russian language teacher herself) pulled me through the hard times of learning the Russian language and encouraged me to continue. Like my friend at the children’s center, I developed a personal relationship with her that carries into the present. Formed over editing my weekly essays, she and I spent hours discussing life, culture, language, our lives and significant others, and our respective countries. My language partner went out of her way to help me, and she acknowledged and encouraged my efforts to learn her country’s language. She did much more than help my language develop, though that she did well. She became my friend, and she helped build a bridge across cultures and in spite of politics. My continued relationship with her today provides a foundation for my ongoing pursuit of Russian and U.S.-Russia relations.

Since the American Councils’ RLASP program, I have not stopped in my efforts to learn Russian and understand U.S.-Russia relations. I am nearly one hundred pages into a major research project about Americans’ perceptions of Russia and how that influences the country’s foreign policy towards Russia. To this end, I am writing op-eds for my regional newspaper, the Roanoke Times, arguing that Russia is not a monolith but a diverse and unique country, and that America’s political dialogue about Russia should be nuanced by a purposeful emphasis on people, not just their leaders’ politics. These publications started a healthy conversation in my college community about Russia. In the future, I seek to earn advanced degrees in Russian and Eurasian affairs and work in the field. While political necessity will always influence international politics, my dream is to remind my fellow Americans that there is always hope for future change, that what has been between the U.S. and Russia must not always be.

I have been changed by my time in Russia. My worldview and my professional goals have been nuanced and altered for the better. As I write this brief essay, I am increasingly grateful for the work of American Councils, and particularly for the opportunity afforded by the Dan E. Davidson Fellowship. The scholarship certainly helped financially. But to a higher degree, the opportunity to meet Mr. Davidson and to study under a fellowship in his name helped me to understand my place in the larger effort to develop the relationship between the U.S. and Russia. Mr. Davidson spent his life working on this, and I am honored to have been given such a start. The Fellowship was as much an inspiration and encouragement to me as it was a financial gift. As I move forward and take up the torch of pursuing positive relations between the U.S. and Russia, I am and will always be grateful for that gift.

Program: Advanced Russian Language and Area Studies Program (RLASP), St. Petersburg

Term: Spring 2019

The Dan E. Davidson Fellowship supports highly qualified and deserving individuals who would otherwise not have the opportunity to build the skills that allow them to operate, negotiate, and establish ties in countries critical to U.S. economic, political, and social interests through language study and area studies coursework. Click here to learn more about Dr. Davidson and the Fellowship.

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