For Russian students Regina Galeeva and Liudmila Budaragina, 2022 will be remembered as a difficult, stressful year, marked by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on February 24 and the practical challenges it posed for them as students studying abroad.
However, 2022 will also be remembered as a time of growth and enlightenment, as the two students managed to avoid returning home at a time of uncertainty and turmoil, thanks in large part to the generosity of others. Instead, Galeeva and Budaragina traveled the world; meeting new people, learning interesting things and overcoming obstacles that would have kept them from doing what they loved most.
Galeeva and Budaragina came to Alma College through the Year of Exchange in America for Russians (YEAR) program that’s designed for exemplary students who wish to study for one year in the United States. Galeeva, a history major who is fascinated by the American civil rights movement of the 1960s, and Budaragina, a political science major who wishes to someday work for a humanitarian aid organization, were drawn to Alma because of its powerful Model United Nations (MUN) program.
At the 2022 Midwest Model UN Conference in St. Louis, Missouri, the Alma College team was its usual dominant self, en route to winning two “outstanding delegation” awards, the highest recognition at the conference. For its two lone Russian students, however, the conference was marked by distraction and worry, as Russian President Vladimir Putin announced a “special military operation” in Ukraine during the event.
“I remember very clearly picking up my phone and seeing the news,” Budaragina said. “We were shocked and scared, but we tried to put it in the back of our minds. It was important to us to be good delegates and help our MUN team to success. We didn’t want to let anyone down.
“I didn’t know what to expect when we came back to Alma — whether my friends would be upset with me for what had happened in Russia — but I immediately felt so much support. There were so many messages and emails from people telling me they would always be there for me. It meant so much at the time, and it continues to mean a lot to me now.”
SUMMER OF TRAVEL
The students’ year in the U.S. was expected to end in April, but due to the situation back home, they said, they did not want to return immediately. Galeeva and Budaragina convinced the YEAR program to allow them to stay for another year, which would give them time to complete their college degrees.
However, the arrangement forced them to apply for and be accepted as Alma College students. This meant they needed to pay for tuition, room and board — which they could not afford.
Thankfully, Bart Housman ’06 and wife Ashley came forward to assist, and established the Model UN Student Support Fund, which provides support to Model UN students that can include, but is not limited to tuition. Alma College also provided financial support.
“I think what you saw was some incredible generosity from the donor who came forward to help in this situation, as well as the administration of Alma College, which also came through in a big way to help students who exemplify our mission statement through and through,” said Derick “Sandy” Hulme, the Arthur L. Russell Professor of Political Science and MUN advisor. “My hat goes off to them.”
The two students took full advantage of their once-in-a-life- time opportunity. They participated in a Spring Term course taught by Hulme, Presidential Library Research, that took them to Boston to explore the Kennedy Presidential Library and Boston Public Library. Then, Galeeva and Budaragina took part in the Posey Global Leadership Fellows Program, flying to Sierra Leone and volunteering at the Makankisa Child Care Center, an orphanage that Alma College and community partners helped to build in 2018.
“This was the most incredible experience,” Budaragina said. “Despite everything these kids are going through, they want to know about the world. We told them everything we could: everything we knew about space, dinosaurs, and the world. They couldn’t get enough. When you see kids being happy about things you take for granted, it makes you feel better about your place in the world.”
HICCUPS ON THE RIDE BACK TO THE U.S.
A short trip back to their hometowns in Russia gave Galeeva and Budaragina some much-needed family time and assurances that those close to them were well. Before long, they were jet-setting again: this time, to Gurugram, India, for an internship through MUN. While in India, the two students worked at the Shiv Nadar School, teaching seventh- through 12th-graders about MUN.
“I couldn’t believe how engaged and interested these children, some as young as seventh grade, were about world events,” Galeeva said. “They were saying to us, ‘Tell us everything you can about climate change,’ like they wanted to know so they could make a difference in their world.
It was such a pleasure to teach them — and now, they’re messaging us on social media, telling us to come back.”
By mid-August, it was time to come back to Alma and begin the Fall Term. However, an old issue would come back to haunt the two students. When they went to board the plane back home, they were told that because their visas had expired in April, they couldn’t enter the U.S. They would need to apply for a new visa before they could get on the plane — and that process, according to some information they saw online, could take upwards of two years.
With resourcefulness and determination, Galeeva and Budaragina worked to ensure this would not be the case. They found that the consulate in Mumbai, India, was willing to work with Russians to get American visas in as little as 10 days. Thanks to Alma College MUN alumni who were living in India, they managed to secure the necessary funds they needed to pay for the application. Then, it became a harrowing wait to see if they would be granted entry.
“We knew that if we did not get a visa, we would probably be heading back home, and we didn’t want to go there,” Galeeva said. “So, for three straight days, with Dr. Hulme, we practiced every question they would ask us. The border agents were suspicious of any Russians entering the U.S., and we did not want to give them reason to be suspicious of us. We worked very hard to be ready for their questions, and it paid off.”
After a tense meeting with a border agent — during which Galeeva said “every minute felt like an hour” — the students were finally granted their visas and were bound for Alma. Waiting for them in Detroit was Hulme, who said he “could not believe” they were actually there, after everything they had been through.
BIG PLANS FOR THE FUTURE
With an exciting summer behind them, Galeeva and Budaragina are now thinking about the future. They’re looking forward to once again competing at MUN events and continuing Alma’s streak of excellence. They are both considering going to American or European graduate schools after leaving Alma; Galeeva likely to study law and Budaragina to continue her studies of political science.
Both are very concerned about the situation in Ukraine and its implications for the future of their homeland, and the world. But mostly, they are filled with feelings of appreciation for Alma College and the people who make it up; those who enabled them to stay in the U.S., with their friends, and learn lessons that can make a difference in the world.