To Russia with hope

22-year-old Sarah Chao, a 2008 AHS graduate, will teach English in Russia over the next school year as a Fulbright Scholar. —Trey Mewes/trey.mewes@austindailyherald.com

Austin High grad begins teaching in Eastern Europe

It was the beautiful sights, the gorgeous hidden waterfalls, and the hidden cave cities that made living in Georgia an incredible experience for Sarah Chao. From January to June, she got to teach children English every day, and the small village she lived in was fascinating for someone born and raised in the U.S.

Chao didn’t spend time in a southern U.S. state, mind you. She lived and worked in the Eastern European nation, one of several trips the young globetrotter has made over the past two years. Yet Chao isn’t done working abroad: The 2008 Austin High School graduate and 2011 St. Olaf College graduate will teach conversational English to students in Russia as a Fulbright Scholar over the next school year.

“When I was a kid, my family never did any travel,” Chao said. “I think I’ve been to Mt. Rushmore six times … and we did a lot of camping. But we never really went outside of that realm.”

That’s surprising, considering how traveled her family is now.

 

Sarah’s father David spent much time abroad in France when he was younger, and Sarah’s older sister currently lives in France. In fact, that’s partly why when Sarah got into college, she looked into study abroad programs right away.

Sarah had also taken French in high school, and it seemed she’d follow in her sister’s footsteps traveling there. It wasn’t until a chance meeting with a Russian professor — a “really striking woman” from St. Petersburg, according to Sarah — during her first week of school that she seriously considered studying in Russia.

“She walked up to me and she told me that I was taking Russian,” Sarah said with a laugh. “She’s like this diva, with a really big accent, and she was like, ‘You are going to be taking Russian, yes?’”

From then on, Sarah was determined to visit Russia, changing her major from French and chemistry to Russian, and falling in love with the language and the culture. She studied Russian theater for a month in Moscow and St. Petersburg in January 2010, during her sophomore year.

“I just loved it,” she said. “I wanted to do everything after that. I wanted to go everywhere.”

Studying abroad was liberating for Sarah. She was free to pursue her interests without being tied down by a job or a family to support. Even better, she was good at traveling, packing everything in a single backpack for the entire month.

“Everything I needed was in it,” she said. “I triple-checked. I found out that everybody else who was going on the trip had like three rolling duffle bags and the giant suitcases.”

She returned to Russia to live in Velikey Novgorod for four months in fall of 2010, traveling Europe, before graduating in 2011 and working at Concordia Language Village during the summer. At that time, she found an internship to teach English in Kiev, Ukraine (through a Facebook ad, no less) and she bought a plane ticket two weeks later.

“I felt at home,” she said. “It was the first time that I had been in a Russian-speaking country and felt so comfortable with the language. Since I was a teacher, instead of a student … I felt more grown up. I was still studying Russian, but I could get around.”

Sarah spent three months teaching English in Kiev last fall before finding another English teaching program, this time in the Republic of Georgia, where she taught from January to June of this year. While her time in Kiev was spent teaching adults, Sarah taught elementary school students English in a village school outside of Kutaisi, Georgia, courtesy of the Georgia government as part of a concerted effort to get native English speakers in the country to teach the language to Georgia students.

“It’s a very safe place,” she said. “People are extremely generous. They’re really hospitable. And it’s beautiful, the most beautiful place I’ve ever been to.”

Sarah first heard she had won a Fulbright grant in April, during her time at the village school. She had applied for the grant even before her trip to Ukraine, working with professors who reviewed her materials. When she heard the good news, Sarah danced around the living room of her host family and kept darting outside, waiting for her host mother to walk up to the home.

Now that she’s back home, Sarah is preparing to spend nine months at Irkutsk State Linguistic University in Irkutsk, in Siberia near the Mongolian border. She’ll teach conversational English to the college students there, while spending at least 10 hours per week working on her already impressive Russian with a tutor and volunteering at a Russian orphanage. She’s taught Russian orphans before, and she wants to learn more about her former students while acting as a positive role model.

“She’s done an amazing job,” said Sarah’s father, David. “She’s just been a good kid.”

David said the international education program, which awards about 8,000 grants annually including about 1,600 for U.S. students each year, was wonderful and he was pleased his daughter earned the honor.

“I’m excited and proud,” he said. “I think it’s amazing.”

For her part, Sarah is set to begin a new chapter overseas, although she’s concerned about being away from home for so long. Yet she’s glad for the opportunity, and she’s already looking at other options after her time in Irkutsk is up. She’s applying to graduate schools all over, and has already been accepted at University College in London. She also has the opportunity to extend her Fulbright grant should she decide to stay in Russia.

She’s pretty sure she doesn’t want to teach forever, but she likes the possibility of becoming a professor one day. She doesn’t have to make up her mind yet, however, and that suits her fine. She’s happy to learn from the new people she meets and to share her culture and experiences with others.

“It’s a really liberating feeling,” she said.

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