U.S.-Russian travel enriched by exchange WEST COLUMBIA

January 20, 1993|By Mark Guidera | Mark Guidera,Staff Writer

What would you do if a dozen or so Russian college students and a handful of their professors showed up at your door expecting you to be their stateside host?

Or suppose you found yourself guide to a group of Americans eager to ski and soak up the local culture in the heart of Russia's Caucasus Mountains?

Well, Columbia resident Sondra Taylor, who doesn't speak a whit of Russian, handles both in stride.

As founder, program coordinator and sole employee of the nonprofit organization International Training and Education Services, she organizes educational and cultural exchange trips for Americans interested in an up-close experience in Russia, and for Spaniards and Russians interested in seeing the United States.

With no paid staff, the Wilde Lake resident organizes a dizzying array of exchange trip details, from setting up dozens of host families for visitors here and abroad to scheduling classes for trip participants.

"To me, traveling and immersing yourself in another country's culture and people can be one of the most singular experiences a person can ever have. Their whole perspective changes. After the trip they will simply never be the same," Mrs. Taylor said last week as she relaxed in a sun room of her home filled with Russian crafts and collectibles. She calls the area her "Russian room."

The mother of six children, Mrs. Taylor was feeling pretty immersed herself last week, even though she hadn't left U.S. soil.

She had spent the better part of the past two weeks ushering about 15 college-age Russian students and several of their professors on a cultural and educational exchange trip around the Baltimore-Washington area.

The 13-day trip included, of course, a tour of America's experimental town, Columbia, dinner parties at the homes of host families, visits and talks with U.S. high school students, an entire day shopping at decidedly American stores such as Leedmark and The Gap, tours of hot spots in Baltimore and Washington, and . . . a day trip to view that quintessential American beach town, Ocean City.

One of the highlights for the group, recalled Mrs. Taylor, was an unexpected meeting with the renowned Russian-born cellist and conductor Mstislav Rostropovich, exiled in 1974.

The chance meeting highlighted the need to spot opportunity for meaningful experiences for exchange participants, Mrs. Taylor said.

The group had attended a Rostropovich concert at the Kennedy Center in Washington one evening last week. After the concert, Mrs. Taylor decided to "wing it" and approach the stage manager to see if a spur-of-the-moment meeting could be arranged with the great musician and a group of his compatriots.

"He called us backstage and he just reached out and hugged everyone. It was really a very moving moment," Mrs. Taylor said.

"This man is a hero in his country," she said. "When the Soviet Union was falling apart and the people were surrounding the Kremlin, he flew to Moscow to be with his people. He risked everything to be with his people in a time of danger. These kids were amazed to meet him."

Ljubov Parkhomchuk heads the international department for Intellect, a Russian educational foundation that assists Mrs. Taylor with cultural and educational exchanges in the former Soviet Union. She was among the Russians visiting last week.

Ms. Parkhomchuk says it's experiences such as the unexpected meeting with Mr. Rostropovich that make the program so worthwhile.

"The exchanges open up a new world, a new level of life for the visitors. Many of the Russians who have been in the program have asked me for the opportunity to repeat the trip."

Mrs. Taylor's interest in cultural exchange trips began when she was a high school student and exchange students lived with her family while studying in the states.

Mrs. Taylor longed to visit other countries and while in college, she decided to spend a year studying in Austria and Germany, and became hooked on the value of international exchange.

While rearing her six children, Mrs. Taylor and her husband, Robert, have traveled widely in Europe and parts of the Mideast and Russia.

In 1988, she decided to broaden her love for cultural exchange by starting a nonprofit foundation. Mrs. Taylor used contacts she'd made in Spain on her travels to arrange the foundation's first exchange of visitors. About 25 students from Spain now travel annually to the United States thanks to her foundation.

In 1990, Mrs. Taylor faced a personal and professional crisis.

Diagnosed with breast cancer just months before a Spanish exchange group was due in the United States, she had to decide whether to cancel the program.

"There really wasn't someone else I could turn everything over to to make sure the exchange went smoothly," she said. "I realized just how much of the program depended on me and if I canceled the exchange it would be like pulling a curtain on a very important part of my life."

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