I met Dr. John Bedker, the Fulbright Scholar to Belarus, on a sunny May afternoon, just a few days before he was about to return home after six months of teaching and consulting in Belarus. A practitioner-scholar with a multi-faceted background, John taught courses at one of the leading Belarusian universities, BSEU, and consulted startuppers, established businesses and institutions during his time in Belarus.
We spoke about the higher education system in Belarus, Belarusian students and teachers and about what Belarus needs to do to communicate itself globally.
‘I didn’t expect Minsk to be as modern as it is’
Like many first-time visitors, John had little to no idea about Belarus. He studied some guide books, learned a bit of Russian online,and received briefings about the country from the U.S. Department of State as part of his pre-departure orientation.
My sense was that Minsk would not be as modern or cosmopolitan as it is.
“I did understand the history of what happened and rebuilding of the city a few times, but I didn’t have the sense that is would be as current and contemporary as it is,” John describes his impressions about the Belarusian capital.
“The safety is extraordinary, certainly relative to the United States, where you have to be much more cautious about things.”
“You see the city of Minsk and the energy of the shops and restaurants, the people – and you get a very positive impression.”
Traveling to Belarus as a Fulbright Scholar was to embrace an unknown, as Dr. Bedker had no previous connection with the country whatsoever. He never regretted it though. “The time here has been fantastic,” the professor says.
John and his wife have traveled around the country, too, visiting Grodno with a tour guide, and other places. Getting around without knowing the Russian language – the American describes his fluency in Russian as “just enough to perhaps order at a restaurant” – wasn’t problematic.
I was surprised and encouraged by the number of people who have studied English, and not only make the attempt but actually enjoy their opportunity to use English
Even if people said ‘No English’, it actually had worked out fine, John recalls.
‘At university, they would bring me cakes and wanted to take a photo with me’
At Belarusian State Economic University, the professor taught a course of negotiation in the Western context and a series of leadership seminars. He had an opportunity to work with all ranges of students – from the undergraduates to Ph.D. students.
In the beginning, the professor was hoping the students would be interested in his course offerings, because they were intentionally delivered in English. English is the international language of commerce. “We wound up being way oversubscribed, there was a high level of interest and each course was well-received,” he recalls with pleasure.
Belarusian colleagues attended talks and lectures, too – for their own professional development.
In our conversation, I ask Dr. Bedker about the differences between the two educational systems, Belarusian and in the United States. The professor’s response was deep and fundamental – the differences not only lie in the external things like buildings and equipment but in the standards of the systems, history and culture.
In Belarus, it is not uncommon to buy research, a term paper, a report, and even at the graduate level – to buy a thesis or dissertation.
“I am not saying that everybody does it, but some do and without any remorse,” the professor shares his observation. “That practice is completely different and not acceptable in the United States. In fact, it’d be a serious violation in the United States, known as plagiarism.”
The degree should mean something, he continues – it should mean that one grew their knowledge and expertise through their own efforts and work.
Dr. Bedker spoke about research standards and practices in Belarus with students in the classroom. He was also asked to speak on this topic at the annual Student Economic Conference.
“I am pleased to report that this critical conversation got very positive feedback from students and faculty. I think the difference is cultural and not intentional because that’s the way it has been for a long time. It is an accepted standard, but a standard that must change.”
Another difference from the American system that drew the professor’s attention was the style of teaching, which, Dr. Bedker believes, is determined by the challenging working conditions at universities.
Belarusian universities, the Fulbright Scholar says, have some PhDs but a large number of assistants that would teach many courses. “When asked why they wouldn’t pursue a Ph.D., they would tell you, ‘Why?’ They work very long hours, get very little pay, there is no more recognition, and they shared their limited career mobility, so the incentive to them is very little,” Dr. Bedker was told.
The dissertation for a PhD costs a lot of money John was told, the same is true for publications – in Belarus, people pay to get published, which, again, is unheard of in the States.
Paying for one’s Theses or Dissertation would be a cause for failure and likely expulsion in the United States. This, in turn, triggers a flatter and less engaged style of teaching. John makes a pause here and explains his idea:
“I am not criticizing, it’s the way it is. Belarusian teachers are absolutely lovely, but they work very long hours, they aren’t getting much money, and at the end of the year their zeal and enthusiasm are drained.”
Teaching is a job rather than a calling. You don’t see the passion, you don’t see the smile
On a positive note, students were extremely engaged in the classes, engaged in non-typical exercises and developed their English and presentation skills in the projects for the classroom.
“It was difficult to end the class. I was encouraging them to keep slides, use the knowledge later on; and they would ask, “what can we do to make you talk again?” It was hard,” the professor sighs.
The mission, goal and ideals of a Fulbright Scholar are to live, learn and work with people of another country. Fulfilling each of these “was a joy,” Professor Bedker said. “The effect students, faculty and leadership at Belarusian State Economic University had on me was profound. I sincerely believe they felt similarly.”
Smiling, the professor jokes he was actually worried how much weight he would gain in Belarus because faculty and students would often give him candy and cakes.
“I would bring things to class because they would bring me things. I would bring cakes and cookies and other sweets – if you guys can do it, then I can do it as well. And they found it interesting, because the idea that they would be given something freely, as a gift, was not common.”
The Soviet system has been there for ages. It will take a generation to change it
What can be changed in the Belarusian higher education system to raise its standards, I ask.
“I encourage scholarship,” Dr. Bedker answers decisively.
“I think if academic research was supported, you would find people really did have an interest, want to know more about a particular topic and they would be eager to go and explore and ultimately publish if given the time.”
He also suggests cutting the hours for teachers – “there is a limit to how effective one can be. Long hours reduce effectiveness and make the teaching staff drained, leaving no place for creativity and engagement.
Finally, a third change the American professor suggests is to introduce office hours.
“Thhere often is a time when a student may have not gotten a concept that was presented,” he elaborates. “Office hours would be that time one-on-one with an assistant or a professor to bridge that gap.”
If a teacher and a student can sit and learn together and a student can ask questions and get answers, then the learning process would be more exciting and more fruitful, Dr. Bedker is certain.
“And it will bring new energy,” he adds.
He warns, however, against waiting for quick results.
“To change a culture is a large and time-consuming thing. Not a semester, not a year – but a long time. You have a system that has been in place for decades, passed on from generation to generation – literally, and the idea that you’re going to do it in less than a generation is probably unreal.”
To effect sustainable change in how universities work in Belarus will take a long time and require other things, like autonomy, for example, Professor Bedker explains.
The issue here, a cultural holdover is “don’t speak out, don’t bring a new idea, don’t change anything
Altering this way of thinking is a challenge that would take a lot of time.
Many Belarusians are leaders – unknowingly
I share that Belarusians aren’t leaders by nature. I then seek to explore why Dr. Bedker believes that Belarus has many effective leaders.
“Leaders are developed, not born,” Dr. Bedker states. “To become a leader requires development, training, experience and repetition.”
Dr. Bedker certainly knows what he is talking about.
“Leadership has always appealed to me, from a very young age, although I could not articulate myself as a leader, in my early years,” he recalls.
His first formal training as a leader took place at the US Naval Academy. Then, Midshipman Bedker, flourished at the Naval Academy. “Not because I was smart because I wasn’t [LAUGHING] but because of leadership.”
In his final year, he was a member of the Brigade Staff, the highest leadership component of the academy. His Naval Academy education, training and experience was a springboard for a lifetime of leadership.
“ Each of my careers, if you think about in terms of leadership… Being the captain of the airplane (a leader), or being the president or a CEO of a corporation (a leader), or being in the Navy reserve and being a commanding officer (a leader) – these were not coincidental, these were things I was comfortable with, it was a natural connection.”
The professor starts with the definition of what it means to be a leader. For him, this is not a rank or a position, but rather who a person is, what they do, what they stand for and how they are able to bring people together.
“We are all leaders.” John gave me several daily life examples:
“If you’re a mom, you’re a leader; if you’re a dad, you’re a leader. If you’re a friend, you may have to be a leader. If you are a roommate – this too, may require some leadership.”
Do you think there were many leaders among Belarusians you’ve met here, I ask directly?
Yes, he says, and many are leaders unknowingly.
“Some of the most effective leaders – and this is true everywhere, not only in Belarus – oftentimes don’t know or recognize that they are leaders. Leaders are often, unknowingly, intrinsically good at what they do. Their leadership is who they are, it is their identity.”
“I’ve seen some incredible things with the start-ups that I have worked with – blessed with wonderful leaders, largely unknowingly, but that’s what makes them great.”
Business potential of Belarus and what it needs to get visible
What would be Belarus’ unique advantage in the world where start-ups are booming like mushrooms after rain?
“I would argue human capital, but the business answer certainly is the 1% tax,” the American consultant laughs. “People would, and do, come from Moscow when they hear about that tax.”
Having met and consulted with the local tech community, John believes that Belarus has a good supply of knowledge capital and STEM people in the area.
It’s a creative environment. For example, Hi-Tech Park – what an incubator! 1.5 billion U.S. dollars in revenue last year. It’s not just talking, it’s doing
In John’s opinion, Belarus is a country with a vibrant and robust IT environment, a number of start-ups that are doing exciting things, and investors who are willing to make a commitment without near-term profits for the opportunity to be at the beginning of what may be an exciting opportunity several years down the line.
“There are so many great start-ups, it is unfair to skip any of them. Let mention at least a few. In agriculture, I think, One Soil – incredible STEM skills, a vision and a very real commitment.
A number of projects in healthcare, like Flo Health for women, and Viv Health, a start-up for the health of more senior people. These start-ups embody leadership in their fields, in their people and in their entrepreneurship.”
When it comes to attracting contracts, especially in the West, the professor believes excellent communication is vital.
“Things that are written, absolutely, meticulously in Western style, written at the highest level, will absolutely be well received,” he enumerates.
Belarus can absolutely fill many niches but it needs to have people to communicate, and raise awareness about the projects in a highly professional way.
“Among business people and entrepreneurs, it’s quite common to speak English. Some of them have such excellent English, you’d almost think they are American – unless they went to school in England, and then they have the British English,” John jokes.
The problem is, once you go down that organizational chart a couple of levels, the English fluency tapers – and I think that would have to change
“Eventually, if you are brand manager, or product manager, or marketing manager, someone in a senior position, that phone is going to ring and the person calling is going to speak English – and you would have to be able to make a good impression by being fluent,” John concludes.
Pepperoni (?) pizza and other wonders of shopping in Belarus
I can’t let John go without recapping his time in Belarus and telling me some funny stories from his stay – which travellers always have in stock.
“I am smitten,” he smiles. “I think Belarus is a great place.”
The impressions of the city and how it would sail in a business context – absolutely marketable. It would be a great place to have as a hub, as a point of commerce.
Then we pass on to the daily life in Belarus and things that an American may be missing.
“Well, a funny one. I went to a pizza place and ordered a pepperoni pizza, and they brought me a giant cheese pizza with actual peppers on the pizza.”
“In the US, pepperoni is a small meat product, cut thinly, and placed on a pizza. Not so here. They actually put an entire pepper, with stem and everything.”
Other curious observations come from shopping in a supermarket.
“There were ping pong paddles and ping pong balls next to the bakery stand in the grocery store. That was a first. Next to the ping pong gear, there was automobile motor oil.”
John says he didn’t feel uncomfortable because some typically American things are missing in Belarus. Apart, perhaps, was his missing his JIF peanut butter:
“I went without the peanut butter, which is probably a good thing, because I received so many CAKES AND COOKIES.”
I thank Dr. Bedker, wish him a safe flight back, and offer one last try:
– Would you visit again?
Photo: Volha Shukaila/TUT.BY