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Ridgewater College instructor hopes to learn as much as he teaches during his year in Russia

Sam Nelson, a history instructor at Ridgewater College in Willmar, discusses Wednesday the year he'll spend living and teaching in Russia after being selected as a Fullbright Scholar. Nelson will teach there for the 2012-13 academic year.2 / 2

WILLMAR -- Sam Nelson said he is still pinching himself to be sure that his Fulbright Scholar award isn't a dream.

Nelson, 55, of Spicer, a Ridgewater College history instructor, learned recently that he had been selected to be a Fulbright Scholar and teach for a year in Kazan, Russia.

"It's hard not to think about it every day," he said. "I haven't slept all that well, because I keep thinking about it."

While he's focusing on the last part of this school year, he said, he is also starting to develop and work through a long to-do list before he leaves the United States for a year.

Nelson said he will be leaving in August to find an apartment and settle in before he starts teaching in September.

His wife, Sandra, a second-grade teacher at Kennedy Elementary School in Willmar, may accompany him, he said, but they are still working out the details of that. They have two grown children who may try to visit Kazan while he is there. His 92-year-old mother is excited and very proud.

While he and his family are thrilled at the opportunity, Nelson is a soft-spoken guy who is a little uncomfortable with all the attention he's been getting. He talked about it last week while sitting in his book-stuffed office at Ridgewater.

"There are a lot of really deserving, tremendous faculty here," he said. "I just happened to apply and be selected."

Nelson said he's grateful for the backing he's received from the administration, faculty and staff at Ridgewater. "Any of us who receive an honor or award individually, you can't do it alone," he said. "It may have my name on it, but a lot of people's support helped make these things happen."

The attention he's been getting will have been bearable, he said, if it helps bring positive attention to Ridgewater and its faculty, too.

Nelson will be teaching several classes in American history to Russian students at the Kazan Institute of Economics, Management and Law.

He'll be teaching in English, he said, but as soon as he learned of his destination, he downloaded up a Russian language program and has been practicing in the car.

To gauge his students' familiarity with English, he said, he plans to ask them to write an essay telling him what they think of America and Americans.

"I'm sure there's a lot of myths going both ways," Nelson said. "I have no doubt I'll learn so much from the students and the people of Russia."

Nelson took a seminar in teaching English as a second language last winter, in the hopes he would be a Fulbright Scholar. He knows he'll need to be conscious of using colloquialisms. He also expects to work with students who have learned British English, not American English.

The classes he will teach include American history and government, Hollywood history and oral history.

Learning what Russian students know about American history and what they have learned about major world events like World War II should be eye-opening, he said. For one thing, he knows that World War II is called The Great Patriotic War in Russia.

In Hollywood history, he said, he hopes to explore "how other nations understand us through our movies."

Through his reading of history and travel books, Nelson has learned that Kazan is described as the Gateway to Siberia and the Istanbul of the Volga. The city is on the Volga River and is considered a model city for the coexistence of Christians and Muslims.

The climate seems similar to Minnesota, though it doesn't get as hot in the summer, he said.

He hopes to have some time to travel while in Russia and to visit Stalingrad and Moscow, he said. The school year there is split into two semesters, as it is here, but each is three to four weeks longer.

The city is more than 1,000 years old, older the Moscow. "Ivan the Terrible liberated Kazan from the Mongol horde," Nelson said with a smile.

While he is in Russia, he will be on sabbatical from Ridgewater. Fulbright provides a housing stipend and living allowance. It will pay for his travel and for his wife's, too, if she is there for 80 percent of his time in Russia, he said.

Nelson said he applied to teach in Russia, because "I've been fascinated by Russia for a long time." He's interested in learning more about a people that is moving toward democracy after hundreds of years living under government control.

Nelson said he had been chosen for a Fulbright teacher exchange program about 15 years ago. He was selected, but was never matched up with another teacher. With children in school and a busy life, he put the idea on hold for a while.

This time, he contacted the Fulbright program before applying, to ask if he should even apply. He was told to go ahead.

"It is the flagship international opportunity for teachers and scholars," he said. "You can't get it if you don't apply."

Nelson said he believes the selection committee looks for geographic diversity in its choices along with its other criteria.

"I hope this will lead to more people applying for Fulbrights from community colleges," he said.'

Tribune photo by Ron?Adams

Linda Vanderwerf

I cover education issues for the West Central Tribune and have worked for the paper since 1995. I have worked in journalism since 1981.

Follow me on Twitter: @lindavanderwerf

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