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Open World delegates gain leadership ideas in Bemidji

From left, Don Day, executive director of the American Indian Resource Center at Bemidji State University, gives a tour Wednesday afternoon to Open World delegates. Pioneer Photo/Monte Draper

Six women from Russia are touring Bemidji this week to gain ideas of how they, as leaders, can become better community developers.

The delegates are exchange professionals through an organization called Open World, which is administered by World Services of La Crosse, Wis. In Bemidji, the delegates are hosted by North Country Health Services, which has hosted Open World delegations from Russia and Uzbekistan since 2003.

This year's Open World theme is "women as leaders."

According to the Open World website, the average age of Open World delegates is 38; more than half are women. Earlier this week, the delegates attended a Bemidji Rotary Club meeting where they gave a presentation on "The Changing Role of Women in Russia."

As part of their tour in Bemidji, the women visited Concordia Language Villages, Itasca State Park, Bemidji Woolen Mills, local grocery stores, the Beltrami County History Center and Morrell's Trading Post. They met with Bemidji Mayor Richard Lehmann and Bemidji State University President Richard Hanson.

At the Boys & Girls Club of the Bemidji Area, the delegates learned about after-school activities and programs.

Bemidji is much smaller in size compared to where the delegates live and work: Tomsk, Siberia, a city of 500,000 people, and Balakovo, Russia, a city of 220,000 people. As leaders in these cities, the Open World delegates talked about their reasons for traveling abroad to Bemidji.

Vera Kuchinskaya, a reporter and producer at an independent television station in Tomsk, is in charge of producing a daily morning show.

"I hope this visit will help me to be a more effective leader in showing people how to work more efficiently," she said.

Kuchinskaya said she was fascinated by American democracy and wanted to learn more about it firsthand.

"Often mass media and the Internet in Russia only presents one side," she said. "Russians are forced to believe America is only about Britney Spears, Barack Obama and George Clooney. I wanted to see for myself what it was like living in a typical American town with real American people. I learned so much here in five days I could never learn in 30 years."

Olga Zhilyakova works as a nursing instructor at Tomsk State Siberian University. She was able to observe a university class at BSU this week and found it interesting to observe the interactions of students in the classroom.

"I noticed the communications between the teacher and students are more informal," Zhilyakova said. "I would really like to take this experience back with me."

When asked what unique qualities female leaders should possess in order to be effective, the women responded with several answers.

"Women leaders should be independent in their decision-making," Kuchinskaya said. "They should be capable of taking into consideration all kinds of information connected to their decision. She should have analytical skills."

Marina Buramenskaya, vice president of the Siberian State Medical University in Tomsk, said a female leader should be very communicative, able to resist pressure, and possess determination.

Nataliya Chasovskikh, the head of an academic department of Tomsk State Siberian University, said she feels the qualities named by her colleagues are not specifically for women.

"Any good leader should possess these qualities regardless of whether it is a man or a woman," Chasovskikh said.

"There is nothing peculiar about Russian leaders or leaders from around the world," said Zhilyakova. "There are no actual gender differences. A good leader is a good leader, that's it."

The women delegates agreed that, as leaders, they are accepted by society in Russia.

"Any woman in any position is criticized using the same female stereotypes, but when a woman gets in a higher position, more people look at her and pay attention to what she is saying," Zhilyakova said. "It's not unusual to criticize women in politics, it just attracts more attention."

The Open World delegates continue their tour of Bemidji this week with leadership training seminars at BSU. They will be treated to a farewell luncheon Friday.

Kuchinskaya said her biggest impression of Bemidji was the cooperation and interaction of people in the community.

"In Russia, we have the impression that most Americans are individualists - they mind to themselves," Kuchinskaya said. "But I have discovered here the people's abilities to get together and do something really good, like the projects that occur at the Boys & Girls Club and the Rotary Club. This ability to unite and do well is really great."

Buramenskaya said her biggest impression was the hospitality of her host family.

"Their house is outside of town on a lake," she said. "Being an urban citizen, I was particularly impressed to be able to walk in the woods, around the lake and have a campfire in the yard. I was impressed how kind-hearted my hosts were to me as their guest."

Kuchinskaya said when she returns to Russia, she will use mass media to express her experience in America.

"I will talk with people about my experiences and use the knowledge I've learned in my professional life," she said.

Alice Thompson, retired Northwest Technical College nursing educator, serves as the local program coordinator and has facilitated the professionals' visit this week. One year ago, Thompson herself traveled to Tomsk through Open World.

"We would like to express a huge gratitude to the Open World program for sending us here and (Alice) Thompson for coordinating this," said Olga Zubkova, an Open World translator and facilitator.

For more information about Open World, visit