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Exchanging Cultures

Volunteers helping a student practicing taking the oath of allegiance

Conversing with West Point Cadets in an English-Russian Cultural Exchange in Brooklyn, NY

For more than 10 years, the Shorefront YM-YWHA of Brighton-Manhattan Beach, a USCIS Citizenship and Assimilation Grant Program recipient, has hosted a cultural exchange with the United States Military Academy (USMA) for its citizenship students and the local community. West Point cadets had already been visiting Brighton Beach for many years to get a taste of Russian culture when USMA first reached out to Shorefront Y to start this cultural and language exchange event in Brooklyn, New York. Twice a year, in the fall and spring, around 80 cadets studying Russian have joined 120 predominantly Russian-speaking students for a face-to-face exchange in both English and Russian.

In small groups of two to six, students from Shorefront Y’s citizenship and ESL programs ask the cadets about their life at West Point and how they participate in community service. In preparation for the exchange, every Shorefront Y class develops a list of questions to ask the cadets during their 1 to 2 hours together. For many students, this is a chance to ask the young cadets about topics that might not normally come up in everyday conversation, such as what they think is most important for a new U.S. citizen to know or what political party they support and why. 

Many of Shorefront Y’s citizenship students grew up in the Soviet Union or are from countries that were part of the former Soviet Union, such as Ukraine, Uzbekistan, Belarus, or Kazakhstan. Since many of the West Point cadets will live in a Russian‑speaking country for a year or two, the exchange is an opportunity for the cadets to ask questions and listen to the students’ experiences in both the U.S. and their home countries.

The conversations are lively, oftentimes beginning with the pre-set list of questions but quickly turning to cultural topics and personal recollections. Some older former Soviet Union war veterans love to join the event each time, adding their memories to the mix. The spirit of comradery and goodwill continues through the end of the event, when everyone sings the widely-loved Russian folk songs “Katyusha” and “Moscow Suburb Nights.” The exchange concludes with cadets, students, and teachers singing “The Star-Spangled Banner” or “God Bless America,” sometimes with tears in their eyes.

In class after the event, Shorefront Y instructors encourage the students to share their notes, feelings, and impressions of the experience in order to learn about what other students and cadets discussed.  The events are fantastic opportunities to broaden the students’ perspectives, learn more about the U.S. military, and foster the students’ assimilation into American culture through firsthand experiences.

You can see a video of the spring 2018 cultural exchange on Shorefront Y’s Facebook page.

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