Timing is everything. The same logic applies when you travel to a foreign land.
When Wilmington resident Panda Powell rode trains in Moscow, ate at restaurants in St. Petersburg and conversed with colleagues at several different colleges in Russia, she said she was not treated differently just because she was an American.
The Director of Sponsored Programs and Research Compliance at UNC-Wilmington visited the country last month to help build its university research administration capabilities. But her one-week trip to Russia started coincidentally one day after the U.S. presidential election.
“It was an interesting time to visit Russia — that’s for sure,” said Powell, an Ohio native, who has worked at UNCW for the past six years.
During her visit, Powell was told that an estimated 80 percent of the Russian population had been pulling for Donald Trump. That may be because Trump received praise from Russian Federation president Vladimir Putin during his campaign and it was Trump who eventually defeated Hillary Clinton in the Nov. 5 election.
The next morning — and half a world away — Powell was having breakfast with her colleagues inside a restaurant when two Russian men came over to their table to congratulate the American visitors on the outcome of the election.
“They cheered us with beers and I think it was 7.30 in the morning,” Powell recalled. “They were very friendly and excited. We just sort of laughed. I mean what could we say?”
Powell took advantage of early registration in North Carolina and cast her presidential vote well before she boarded her plane in Wilmington. After that, there were layover stops in Atlanta and Paris before she landed in St. Petersburg. It was a total flight time of 21 hours, the longest trip Powell had ever taken.
The fact that international tensions between America and its former Cold War rival had risen in the past few months did not deter Powell when she was selected for the trip.
“Not at all,” she said. “It was an amazing opportunity. It was a beautiful country with some incredible architecture. And they kept me busy.”
Powell was there to work with a counterpart from Yaroslav-the-Wise Novgorod State University. She visited the Moscow School of Social and Economic Sciences and also attended the Eurasia Foundation-National Council of University Research Administrators conference in Moscow.
The initiative was a joint effort of the NCURA, the Eurasia Foundation and other global research administration groups. UNCW places a focus on international partnerships and collaboration with universities around the globe and Powell was proud to open the connection with Russia.
“This is something brand new between our schools and I’m happy that it will continue into the future,” Powell said. “We face some of the same challenges and now we’re working together.”
Russian universities are just beginning to incorporate business management practices for research administration and Powell had visited to help spearhead that initiative.
UNCW is working with their Russian counterparts to help them learn more about the business decisions involved in administering grants, including financial accountability and how to locate sources of grant money.
Powell tried all types of Russian soups and breads during her stay, enjoyed hot tea at all meetings and even indulged in an eclair that “was on top of a cloud of cotton candy.”
During walks through the cities, Powell and her colleagues did see American fast-food restaurants — Cinnabon and Krispy Kreme just to name a few — but they never went inside McDonald’s for a Big Mac.
“We opted for the traditional Russian food and it was delicious,” said Powell, who also toured Red Square, the Bolshoi Ballet Theatre and used the underground Moscow metro.
She was paired with Natalia Shaydorova, a research administrator from Yaroslav-the-Wise Novgorod State University, who served as an interpreter and friendly host while in Russia.
“During all of our conferences and roundtable discussions, there may have been three people we encountered who needed to communicate through an interpreter,” Powell said. “Every college student I met spoke English. There really was not much of a language barrier.”
The partnership with Shaydorova began in August when she came to UNCW as part of the NCURA Global Fellowship program. Shaydorova had visited other universities last summer in America but selected Powell for the return trip to Russia.
August is considered a holiday month in Russia, but during her stateside trip Shaydorova got to witness UNCW as it opened its doors to students for another fall semester. She stayed at an Airbnb apartment downtown and enjoyed some warm summer weather at the beach.
Which was a far cry from Powell’s debut in Russia.
“It snowed the whole time I was there,” she said. “I can now say I got to witness a real Russian winter. They had about six inches of snow on the ground and it was amazing how the cars and people still got around. Almost seamlessly.
“If six inches of snow fell in Wilmington, we might have to shut the city down.”
*Tricia Vance of UNCW media relations contributed to this report.
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