In 2019, the U.S. Department of State and the J. William Fulbright Foreign Scholarship Board awarded Illinois State University’s Karen Dennis a Fulbright U.S. Scholar Program award to teach at Vladimir State University in Vladimir, Russia, and now she has come back from her experience to share some things about her, what led her to the Fulbright program, the challenges of the experience, and some incredible memories and stories.

Karen Dennis

Dennis has a deep passion for traveling and meeting new people but growing up on a farm in the middle of nowhere didn’t stop her from wanting to see more and do more. Dennis and her family visited almost every state in the U.S. during her childhood which led her to a “life-impacting” study abroad experience in Eastbourne, East Sussex, England while she was studying at the Mennonite College of Nursing during her undergrad. Years later, Karen was approached with an opportunity to go to Vladimir, Russia to present at a conference on “non-surgical interventions for cardiovascular disease.”

“Of course, I jumped at the offer. This one experience began what I now enjoy as a 25-year relationship with our Bloomington-Normal sister city of Vladimir, Russia. I have been to Vladimir I believe about 13 times now, traveling there with our Sister City Medical Partnership as well as with our KNR Study Abroad Russia. While these experiences have always been incredible, I knew I wanted to have an experience where I became more of a local and less of a visitor,” Dennis said.

She wanted to experience all Vladimir had to offer, but as a native, not as tourist; she wanted more.

“The Fulbright Program is an internationally prestigious program whose goal is to promote international goodwill along with mutual learning, sharing, and understanding.  The goals of the Fulbright Program matched my own personal and professional goals, so I applied for the Fulbright Scholar Program.”

As you can tell, Dennis made the right decision in applying for the program because now she has gotten the experience to face a challenging yet rewarding opportunity to show Vladimir who she is. While Dennis was an instructor at Vladimir State, she was able to enjoy the company of her 16-year old son, Collin, while he attended multiple classes, and completed his sophomore year of high school through a fully online high school program back in the U.S. While overseas, Dennis came to appreciate her office back in McCormick and her car.

“A professor having their own office with their own computer is unheard of there,” she said.

In one of the buildings she taught in, there were no dedicated offices and in her other building they had no Wi-Fi, so Dennis had to adapt. In terms of her appreciation for her car, she learned how to use a bus system for the first time, and it was in a different language. Growing up on a farm doesn’t give you many chances to navigate a bus system.

A challenge that may come to mind about teaching in Russia may be the language barrier, but Dennis always had an interpreter with her during class and her class was even filled with Linguistics students thanks to two professors/friends, Galina and Oksana, who requested that their students participate in her program which offered a great opportunity for Dennis and the students. Dennis was able to teach a similar class to KNR 113 Personal Fitness which is about health, wellness, and fitness while her students were able to interact with a native U.S. English-speaking person so they could get a taste of U.S. English instead of the British English that is normally taught. Another group she worked with was a group of sports students and her linguistics students had the opportunity to serve as interpreters during her lessons as well giving them even more experience.

“I think this example of most challenging and most rewarding aspects describes my most impactful takeaways from the experience. One takeaway, the importance of relationships. I have been building relationships with the people of Vladimir for 25 years. Many of them have become dear friends. The power of positive relationships is incredible. I believe it is through these relationships that mutual understanding, learning and sharing, and goodwill develops. As a result of these relationships, I ended up with two incredible groups of students to work with,” she said.

All of her students took her course for their own personal learning since her course was not a part of their very structured course work (which means they took her course for no academic credit). “It was always such a joy to go to class and to work with these bright, excited, inquisitive students.” Not only were her students bright, excited, and inquisitive, but Dennis and her son were able to see firsthand how hospitable and incredibly generous everyone was. They were welcomed into the lives of the people around them; they were invited to restaurants, people’s homes, to participate in holidays and celebrations, and Collin was welcomed into School #23 where he attended courses.

When asked if she would do it again, she responded in the affirmative.   

“Absolutely, I would definitely do it again. Why? Two reasons. One, because I feel that I wasn’t able to accomplish everything that I had wanted to this first time due to having to return home early because of COVID. Two, I would do it again because this was one of the most incredible experiences in my life. To be able to represent the United States of America as a professor from Illinois State University in The School of Kinesiology and Recreation, and to now be an alumnus of such an incredible program consisting of such a prestigious group of scholars is a profound honor.”

Unfortunately, COVID has interrupted a lot in our lives recently, but I think we should all try to follow some advice that Dennis offered about being a Fulbright alum and about studying abroad that we can all apply to our lives now, “Patience and Flexibility! Nothing ever goes as planned, but that’s OK. It always ends up turning out better than you could have imagined.” COVID, ultimately, ended her experience early, but her experiences have left an outstanding impact on her life.

“While we had experienced hospitality and generosity second to none the entire time of our stay in Russia, the outpouring of love and concern rose to an even higher level during this uncertain time. They wanted to make sure and protect us, to keep us safe. They knew they were our Russian family, and in Russia, families take care of each other. As I reflect on my experience and consider all that I came away with from my time there, I can’t help but tear up in my eyes and feel an incredible sense of overwhelming love. Our dear Vladimir family cared for and protected us like one of their own. I will never forget their love and hospitality.” I’m sure she’ll be looking for the first safe opportunity to be back with her Russian family.