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Weather, politics stir up a memorable Russian trip

July 26, 2011

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Many students dream of going to Hawaii or Cancun in the summer. Not so Chapman University senior Andrew McGuigan, who spent two weeks in Russia—surviving a freak tornado the first day and meeting with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev near the trip’s end.

McGuigan was a participant in the 2011 International Youth Forum on Lake Seliger. The program takes place literally in the woods on the banks of Lake Seliger in Russia. Acceptance into the program is competitive and based on multiple essays each applicant writes. Campers were divided into four groups based on their entrance essays: international business, world politics, civil society and mass media. McGuigan chose world politics.

The 1,000 youth participants aged 17 to 28 bunked in tents near the lake and spent their days hearing lectures, debating and taking part in projects related to real-world politics. For example, McGuigan participated in a mock G8 meeting where he represented the country of China and was tasked with leading China through the next 20 years dealing with issues such as resources and conflicts.

But one of the most dramatic events was unplanned and unusual for the region. The first night of the program a tornado struck and destroyed half the camp. McGuigan and his tent mates sheltered inside their tents and waited out the storm, unharmed. But some 15 campers were sent to the hospital with injuries and many attendees elected to fly home the next day. The program leaders nearly closed down the camp, but an around-the-clock clean-up effort set the program back on schedule.

McGuigan says he “wasn’t too fazed by it” and was grateful the program carried on. The decision to stay proved particularly fortunate for him, too. Near the event’s conclusion, Andrew was chosen by the American delegation to join a select group of 40 representatives from the Seliger Camp to meet with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev at his summer home in Gorki. 

It was a long seven-hour bus trip to reach the summer mansion, but a memorable experience, McGuigan says.

“When we arrived, we learned the meeting with the President would be televised live. So the President’s aides had us do a run-through of our questions before we went in. There were four large television cameras in the room. We were handed headphones with several channels of languages for translation. I sat two spots away from the President and proudly wore my Chapman shirt. I asked President Medvedev if he would support an exchange program between America and Russia for future young leaders. The president’s response indicated he thought an exchange program was a positive idea,” McGuigan says.

Andrew’s biggest takeaway about visiting Russia is that it is not much different from Europe or America. The cultures may be different, but they share similar tastes in music and movies and deal with similar issues. One friendship was made between Andrew and two young men from Afghanistan. And, of course, all those new international friendships continue on Facebook.

McGuigan plans to promote the Seliger experience at Chapman through Sigma Iota Row – an international studies honor society – of which he is currently the president.

He would like to see more Chapman students apply to the program. And if they go, he hopes they “Go with an open mind and expect the unexpected.”

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