Starting with a record of Russian Christmas carols, Illinois State University professor Karen Dennis formed perception of Russian culture and people during the Cold War as a young child.
She had found herself intrigued by Russians at a young age, wondering who they were and what they were like.
Years later as a nurse, she was asked to visit Russia in 1995, and her childhood perceptions were melted away.
“The Soviet Union healthcare was in crisis, funding was barebones, they had nothing, they had no medicines, no supplies,” Dennis said.
She remembers in particular when a young nurse caught her eye as she was handing out free stethoscopes.
“I handed it to her and she started crying,” Dennis said. “Later that evening, how she found me I don’t know, she sought me out and she wanted to give me something, and that’s a very Russian tradition.
“She gave me this brown jewelry box, perfectly lacquered, felt inside, it was clearly handmade.”
The act of kindness shown by that young nurse changed her preconceived notions and cemented her interest in Russian culture. She considers that moment a life-changing event.
Dennis is a professor in the School of Kinesiology and Recreation. She will be teaching a course similar to her personal fitness course in Vladimir next year.
However, she has been taking and receiving delegations of students since 2011.
“One of the delegates, a young professional, had just completed his doctoral work on the topic of heart-rate variability, which happened to be my research interest,” Dennis said. “Through that then I learned about Vladimir State University.”
Bloomington-Normal has been involved with Vladimir, Russia, since 1986 as a part of the Sister Cities International (SCI) foundation.
The SCI was established in 1956 by former President Dwight D. Eisenhower. The relationship between Vladimir, Russia, and Bloomington-Normal is shared with Canterbury, England.
Through the sister cities partnership, the relationship with Vladimir State was able to form, Dennis said.
Vladimir State and Illinois State have their similarities. Illinois State’s School of Kinesiology and Recreation closely mirrors Vladimir State’s Institute of Physical Culture and Sport.
Additionally, the number one cause of death, heart disease, is the same in Russia as in America. However, Americans tend to be more scientifically based, while Russians have old practices that aren’t based in empirical research, Dennis said.
“Even though there’s no hard research behind a specific practice, they [Russians] have been doing it for years and it works for them,” Dennis said, “it’s just not scientifically proven or based.”
When she takes students on these cultural trips, she hopes they learn more about the culture and gain a greater understanding of health practices.
Dennis said she also hopes they continue to want to learn, and leave with more questions than when they started.
“As the next generation of practitioners in the field,” she continued, “Their job is to come up with the next phase of best practice. If it’s working in Russia and it’s working in the United States, how can you take the best of both practices to develop the next generation of best practice.”
With the Fulbright Award, Dennis will be able to teach a course in Vladimir, as opposed to taking the two-week trips to Vladimir with students.
She and her son will live in Russia next January. Her biggest challenge from now until then will be learning the language.
“We realize that we will be studying intensely this summer to learn the language,” Dennis said. “Russian is very difficult.”