Archive for August, 2009

The Theoretical Future

August 21st, 2009

As I mentioned in my first post, I am going to Russia on a Fulbright English Teaching Assistant (ETA) grant. The Fulbright Student Program was founded in 1946 on the initiative of Senator William Fulbright.  Sponsored by the U.S. State Department and administered by the Institute for International Education (IIE), it is one of the most recognized academic and cultural exchange programs in the world. Fulbright ETAs (like me!) receive grants to teach English and share aspects of American culture at schools and universities around the world. ETAs don’t get to choose the city they teach in; in Russia, universities also apply to Fulbright for the right to host an ETA, and the program coordinators match grantees with universities. No ETAs are placed in Moscow or St. Petersburg. During the 2009-2010 school year, we will be in 19 cities in Russia, from Kolomna (a suburb of Moscow) to Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky (check it out: I will be somewhere between these two cities, 600 miles northeast of Moscow, nestled in the corner that the Ural Mountains (the border between Europe and Asia) form with the Arctic Circle (

Ukhta is a city of about 100,000 people located in the Republic of Komi, a federal subject of Russia with an indigenous Komi population of about 25%. There has been oil-drilling activity in the area since the mid-19th century, but until the 1930s there was only a small settlement called Chibyu (the name of a nearby river) where the city would be. Stalin decided to capitalize on the potential oil revenues and sent political prisoners there to work. These prisoners built the roads and rail lines leading to Ukhta and most buildings in the city, and they worked at the refinery five miles out of town. Even now, most residents are descendants of political prisoners. When I first heard that I would be placed there, I did a lot of internet research and read all of the limited information available. One site in particular was quite informative, and I have roughly translated its section on Ukhta’s climate and ecology for your entertainment:

Ukhta’s climate means it’s difficult to find resorts and sanatoriums here where people can relax and regain health; rather, there are a lot of correctional facilities where people serve a sentence, work, and die.

Summer here is cool. The average temperature is about 15 C [60 F]. Of course, there are exceptions when the temperature stays around 25-30 C and it doesn’t rain. But that’s nothing to get excited about, since in such cases the taiga often burns and the air becomes smoky. On summer evenings there are a lot of mosquitoes, and if you go out into the country, the number of parasites increases with your distance from town, and there are additionally flies and gnats that give painful bites.

Winters are very cold. Often temperatures of -30 to -40 C last over a month. In this time schoolchildren feel pretty good, since winter break is often lengthened. Often classes are canceled for grades 1-11. The snow begins to melt in the middle of May and usually falls in the middle of October. Already in August temperatures can get down to 5 C [40 F]. …

In the taiga surrounding the city there are many wild animals and birds: elk, bears, wolves, foxes, hares, wood grouse, ducks (the further you get from the city, the more numerous they are). In the winter you can find mushrooms and berries of many different kinds. …

Some residents of Ukhta drink water from the tap and stay alive. They even say it tastes good! The residents of Syktyvkar [the capital of Komi, south of Ukhta] cannot boast of this.

The presence of an oil refinery in the vicinity of the city by no means makes the air cleaner. However, the amount of harmful waste in the air is two times lower now than it was in 1995. It is possible that this is a result of factory modernizations undertaken by Lukoil.


I will be living and working at the Ukhta State Technical University (UGTU) for the next year. On the sidebar are links to some pictures of Ukhta, current weather, year-round sunrise and sunset times, and the Wikipedia page on Ukhta.

Disclaimer: My blog is not an official Department of State website. The views and information presented here are solely my own and do not represent the Fulbright Program or the U.S. Department of State.

For more information on Fulbright grants for Americans and people of other nationalities, visit

An Update Regarding Official Bureaucratic Forms

August 17th, 2009

The promised run-down of program and city will follow in a few days. First, breaking news.

Going to Russia for any period of time, let alone for a year, involves a significant amount of preparation. In July, I spent a week in Washington, D.C. meeting with other Fulbrighters and officials from the State Department and the Institute for International Education. We talked about strategies and tools for teaching English, how to get along with host universities, details of living in Russia, and the all-important paperwork for getting there.

Assuming you, like me, have a valid passport, the main thing you need to get to Russia is a visa, and before you can apply for one, you must be invited by a Russian institution. Many English Teaching Assistants (ETAs) received their invitations at the orientation, and some even got their visas while there. I did not. I was not overly worried, but two facts made my visa acquisition plans a bit trickier. First, for certain (surely excellent) unknown reasons, there is no Russian consulate in Chicago, meaning the closest one to Indianapolis is in fact Washington, D.C. Since Russian consulates no longer accept visa invitations by mail directly, I would have to send it in through a visa agency, which, of course, entails an extra fee. Secondly, I took a trip to Canada in early August, for which I needed my passport, so I wouldn’t be able to apply until I got back. Translation: Rush fees and cutting it close for leaving on August 26 (oh yes, I have already bought plane tickets).

It couldn’t be even that dubiously simple, though. Last week I was informed that UGTU (my host university) had applied for the wrong type of visa invitation for me. Given the many seemingly similar types of visas, most of which are not officially listed in paperwork, I don’t blame them. And now they must start over, and all I can do is wait, indefinitely, and hope that Fulbright will cover my flight change fees.

Long story short, my departure has been demoted to TBA. As focused as I am right now on getting to Russia, it’s anyone’s guess on whether I’ll know what to do once I’m there.

Origins Myth

August 12th, 2009

How does one get here?

Although I have a matter-of-fact attitude on most everything in life, thinking about my current situation from an outside perspective makes me wonder: really, how did I come to be here, sitting in my parents’ home in Indianapolis, having graduated from a small, liberal arts college with a seemingly innocuous degree in languages, waiting to spend a year of my life in a place where January consists of negative-40-degree temperatures and six hours of sunlight a day?

My name is Michelle Ort. I am a recent graduate (2009) of the College of Wooster, and the most straightforward beginning to my story is in high school, although I suppose this has been coming my whole life. (During the process of writing my senior Independent Study thesis, I discovered that I tend to overuse the conjunction ‘although.’ I’m working on it.) In high school, my love and talent for learning foreign languages became apparent almost from the first moment I picked up a French textbook. I quickly jumped on the goal of becoming a polyglot and never looked back. After studying French and German, my love for grammar and 19th-century Russian novels led me to my third foreign language. I eventually chose COW as my undergraduate home and created my own triple-language and linguistics major. At Wooster, I studied Russian for two years before spending a semester in Moscow with the C.V. Starr-Middlebury school at the Russian State University of the Humanities. Since then, I have maintained my language skills by participating in a language seminar course, attending Russian lunches and tea hours, reading, and interacting with Wooster’s lovely language assistants, who come to our school through the Fulbright Foreign Language Teaching Assistant (FLTA) Program.

Until my semester in Moscow, I never fully realized that Russia is not that place you read about in Anna Karenina and Demons. It is mostly modern, inexplicably frustrating, occasionally friendly, politically cynical (my hosts were, at least), and much, much more. It is exotic in some ways, but life is life when you’re living it day to day, whether in Moscow or Indianapolis. Needless to say, the poetry and humor I found in Russian literature were not so apparent in conversation with Russians, partly because not everyone is a literary genius, and party because my auditory comprehension skills were (and are) imperfect. 😉

Life in Russia was a challenge that I didn’t quite master the first time around, and that’s why I applied for a Fulbright grant to teach English there. I made some good friends during study abroad, had a lot of fun, saw and experienced tons of new things, and yes, I got around Moscow just fine with my two years of language classes. However, I never became really close to any Russians, I was sometimes lonely and homesick, and I never understood fully or felt comfortable in the general culture. This is natural, and I don’t expect to ever feel like a true Russian, but I would like to improve. Spending a whole year in a city that is smaller, friendlier, and perhaps more “Russian” than Moscow will hopefully allow me to immerse myself even more fully in Russia.

That’s usually my answer when people ask me incredulously, “Why Russia?” It’s a challenge. It is also a country with a fascinating history and a critical role in current global politics, if only by virtue of its size, past, and ferocious will to be important. Some other good reasons include the bureaucratic difficulties of getting there and the lousy economy. Theoretically, I can go to France or Germany anytime, as long as I have the money. For Russia, it is nice to have a program’s framework for handling bureaucracy. And finally, a Fulbright grant allows me to put off decisions about the Rest of my Life for another year. Each decision was matter-of-fact, but as departure nears, the twists of life that led me seem increasingly inscrutable…

About my program, my host city, and other details in my next post.