Clark on the Volga: Graduate program creates Russian masters

The students receiving their diplomas at the commencement exercise on Nov. 13, 2010, had worked hard for the honor. They attended classes, read stacks of texts, performed research and studied countless hours. Now they possessed the thing they had been working toward: a master’s degree from Clark University.

And they’d earned it in Russia.

The students were enrolled in the graduate program operated by Clark’s College of Professional and Continuing Education at Astrakhan State University in Astrakhan, Russia. There, COPACE offers three courses of study: Master of Science in Professional Communication, Master of Science in Public Administration and Master of Science in Information Technology.

The Astrakhan students have many counterparts in the Worcester program: professionals who are balancing their studies with family or work commitments.

“Astrakhan State University was interested in expanding its horizons,” says Thomas Massey, dean of COPACE. The city of Astrakhan is located on the banks of the Volga River in a remote part of southern Russia, far from the easily accessible cities of Moscow or St. Petersburg, and university administrators there were seeking ways to work with American universities.

COPACE was also looking to collaborate with a Russian university, Massey said, but hadn’t found the right one until Astrakhan came calling. Clark already was operating similar programs in Israel and Poland.

As in those countries, Massey explained, “We’ve begun to effect, in a sense, a small revolution with the way courses are taught at Astrakhan State by introducing the American method of facilitated learning.”

The program at Astrakhan State launched in the spring of 2008, after a year of planning. That fall, representatives from the New England Association of Schools and Colleges visited Russia and gave the program its all-important accreditation.

“Since then,” Massey said, “we’ve been trying to understand what works in Russia — we have a basic idea for the program, but each country is different. The needs are different. You can do advanced market research, but until you start offering the program you really don’t know what’s going to work.”

The Astrakhan program must be working, because other universities in Russia are jumping on the COPACE bandwagon. Students from Kalmyk State University are now able to enroll in the program. They may be able to take some courses at Kalmyk State — a few hours’ drive west of Astrakhan — if professors travel there, but ultimately they will receive their Clark University master’s degrees at Astrakhan State University.

On a trip to Russia in November, accompanied by Dan Nicholes, Clark acting associate director of graduate programs, and Paula David, Clark’s vice president of marketing and communications, Massey announced that Southern Ural State University in the city of Chelyabinsk would also be entering into an agreement with COPACE.

Chelyabinsk is in an industrial area where Southern Ural State University was founded. But the region is very isolated, and Chelyabinsk, considered a sensitive military production area once known as “tank city,” was closed to all foreign visitors until 1986. As the region continues to adapt to its openness, “the university, strong in the sciences, technology, and computing, is very interested in developing a serious relationship with an American university,” Massey said. “We have the kind of program that fits their needs.”

Southern Ural State initially will offer only the Master of Science in Professional Communication degree. “It’s a way to improve their English and a way to learn American ideas about marketing, advertising and communications, and how we use communications as a tool in managing people,” Massey said. “All of that is new to them. They’ve read about it in theory, but they’ve never met anyone who’s done it. So when Paula came to Astrakhan, she was like a rock star — they are thirsty for that knowledge.”

“Clark’s university partnerships in Russia, Israel, Poland and China are a testament to the increasing global nature of education and the economy,” David said. “When we engaged the students, faculty and community leaders at Astrakhan, we discovered a sincere appreciation for Clark’s approach to education and a similar realization that the world demands certain skills and capacities for success. This partnership benefits both Astrakhan and Clark, extending our reach and reputation, and bringing the best of what we have to offer to an international audience.”

The agreement with Southern Ural State came about thanks to an unrelated visit to Clark by Liudmila Shestakova, the wife of the rector (chancellor) of Southern Ural State. She was at Clark with representatives from ten other institutions, in a visit arranged by the International Center of Worcester.

While at Clark, Shestakova met Massey and expressed interest in the COPACE program. E-mails were later exchanged, and the planning surged forward.

As part of the Astrakhan program, students can elect to spend a semester or two studying on the Clark campus in Worcester. If they choose a one-semester visit, they attend class during the second summer session of COPACE courses. A two-semester course involves the spring semester and first summer session. Students who spend two semesters at Clark can then apply for an Occupational Practical Training visa, allowing them to remain in the United State for one additional year for on-the-job training.

Elena Rybalchenko is one of the Astrakhan students taking advantage of two semesters at Clark. While in Worcester, she is taking two spring semester COPACE classes and is an intern in Clark’s Marketing and Communications Department. She said the program is a great way to improve her English skills and learn about the practical side of communications.

The Master of Science in Professional Communication program is “more based on practice” than a Russian program would be, Rybalchenko said.

“American education is better,” she said.

-          By Melissa Lynch Hoffmann '95, Office of Marketing and Communications