10 years with CIEE: Interview with the Center Director Dr. Irina Makoveeva

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St. Petersburg

St. Petersburg

In September 2020, the Center Director of CIEE St. Petersburg, Dr. Irina Makoveeva celebrated her 10th work anniversary as Center Director of CIEE St. Petersburg/Moscow. We asked Dr. Makoveeva to reflect on the decade of  her  service to the organization and to share her thoughts about the future of CIEE in  Russia.


What motivated you to become a director of CIEE study center in St. Petersburg, in 2010? 

In summer 2010, after my three-year term as Carnegie Mellon Professor at Vanderbilt, I accepted an offer from CIEE to head its Study Center in Saint Petersburg. At that point in my life I was ready to test my abilities in leading and managing a non-university academic unit without giving up what is still my passion—teaching. Moreover, then it seemed quite a possible and alluring mission to serve two countries by bridging their remaining post-Cold War divides. Additionally, this position promised to challenge my business, as it had been decided to register our Center as a legal entity in Russia, for the first time since 1967, and to appoint me as the LLC’s General Director.

What were your ambitions for yourself and for the center? Have you met – or even surpassed those ambitions?

I was tasked with bringing CIEE programs at Saint Petersburg State University up to par with the requirements and expectations of U.S. schools and enhancing the Center’s enrollment. So initially I focused on teaching and refurbishing the old curriculum, restructuring our programs, introducing (new for Russian universities) oral proficiency pre- and post- testing, and designing new appealing courses in Russian and English. Thanks to these efforts, we raised our enrollment by a significant 35%, so that in 2013 we hosted a new maximum of 265 students. Unfortunately, this inspiring dynamic was thwarted by the sanctions against Russia in the wake of Crimea’s annexation.

Over the years I organized several workshops for the Russian instructors, which encouraged them to grow professionally and learn more about new approaches to teaching foreign languages in the U.S. I was especially proud of having introduced such new technology into our classrooms as smart boards (then quite a novelty in a classroom). Even more importantly, we managed to locate and recruit excellent instructors to work with CIEE students. So I believe that the academic goals we set in 2010 were fulfilled—and actually surpassed in 2013 with CIEE’s opening of its second Study Center in Russia at Moscow State University for International Affairs (MGIMO), a doubly meaningful development for me as a native of Moscow. What I also see as a wonderful result of my eleven years with CIEE is the LLC’s safe functioning in Russia—not an easy task for someone with Ph.D. in humanities rather than a degree in business.

What are the center’s most notable accomplishments over the years, in your opinion?

There were so many… but I will name just few. One of our most remarkable achievements as an institution shepherding U.S. undergrads into Russian culture and life has been a significant 15-20% of our students return after their studies: to visit their host families, to join MA programs at local universities, to introduce their families and friends to Russia and Russian people, and to work as fellows on various scholarships. Another impressive feature of our Center is the wide range of extracurricular activities that we offer regularly—from Thanksgiving festivities prepared by CIEE students and staff and enjoyed in long university corridors with Russian instructors and students, to themed balls, concerts, parties, and full-fledged productions of Russian fairy tales, skillfully scripted and staged by our creative team members.

Yet for me, the most notable feat would be the three-day celebration of the 50th anniversary of the Saint Petersburg Study Center, the oldest among the CIEE locations around the world. Our team worked tirelessly on this project for more than a year; conducting a scrupulous search for alumni (without any official archival record!); negotiating/booking the rooms at one of the best hotels in the city; preparing a Russian costume ball for sixty guests in an authentic palace; organizing additional enjoyable activities to delight our alumni—all while successfully hosting our regular on-site programs. I think that for all of us, this project and its culminating event in September 2017, with CIEE’s president present and sixty alumni on site (some returning several decades after their studies), became an unforgettably rewarding experience. And I should certainly mention an exquisite volume A Window onto Russia: A Half-Century of Study Abroad with CIEE, presenting reminiscences, stories, and photos from our alumni of fifty years, which we published right before the celebration.    

What are some of your fondest memories of the past 10 years?

My warmest memories, as frequently happens in life, are connected to people. I am indebted to many of my extraordinary staff members for their hard work and creativity, their professional and personal support, as well as the respect and love I have enjoyed for more than ten years. Without their invaluable contributions, my success as the Center Director would not had been possible. They made my life in Saint Petersburg much more agreeable, helped me to survive through its many (too many!) dark days, and taught me how to enjoy the city’s beauty and incomparably rich cultural life. Many host families showed me sincere affection and hospitality, for which I am very grateful to them.

The events and activities designed for students would be another source of my fond memories. How often would I wear imperial garments (albeit only rented) and perform Baba Yaga in a fairy tale production, if it were not for our unique programs? I have been allowed to play multiple roles that otherwise unavailable to Director being one of them! I am already nostalgic for these transformations. Hopefully, the Center will recover after the COVID hit and restore its former glory, allowing me to start collecting new memories.

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