Wheeling Woman Studies on Fulbright

The joke is that Sarah Beckham Hooff must have done something terrible to get “banished” to Siberia.

What she did, however, was earn a Fulbright grant to study the public’s perception of environmental issues near Lake Baikal, the largest freshwater lake in the world -which just happens to be in southcentral Siberia. No joke.

Hooff, a 2006 graduate of Wheeling Park High School, studied Russian and environmental studies at Bucknell University in Lewisburg, Pa. She left Wheeling for Russia on Sept. 1, her second trip to the Siberian city of Irkutsk on the southwestern side of Lake Baikal, which lies just north of the Mongolian border.

The prestigious Fulbright is a year-long scholarship sponsored by the U.S. government, presented to a select group of individuals based on academic or professional achievement and demonstrated leadership potential in their fields.

The 22-year-old will be in Irkutsk until next summer continuing the work she began on her first trip. After graduating from Bucknell in December, she received a small research grant from the School of Russian and Asian Studies exchange program to study environmental politics in the lake region from January to June.

“The lake is over 1,500 meters deep. It’s freshwater, and over 60 percent of the species are endemic; they are found only there. … So it’s a very dynamic spot where a lot of people (in the biology and ecology fields) sort of dream about going,” Hooff said.

On her first trip, she conducted 100 interviews to complete a survey of stakeholders in environmental issues of Lake Baikal – “to really get at what people think their role is in preserving the environment.” She interviewed -in Russian-leaders of environmental movements, groups focused on environmental education, ecotourism organizations and political movers and shakers.

“I met some really inspiring people very passionate about what they do,” Hooff said.

In addition to conducting research, Hooff had time to take in the beautiful scenery, hike, get to know the locals and improve her Russian. All of which she hopes to do more of on her current trip.

“The people are very welcoming. … They really help you and don’t expect anything in return,” she said of both the Russians and the indigenous Buriyat people.

She is amused by Americans’ perceptions of Siberia.

“They really think it is this dank, dark – who knows what they think – like ‘Dr. Zhivago’ I guess,” Hooff said.

The winter, it’s true, lasts about nine months. And yes, the Russian revolutionaries were banished to Siberia in the early 20th century. Those revolutionaries, however, typically were the intellectuals who not only were smart but also culturally rich.

“Irkutsk is a very vibrant place with a lot of brain power and culture,” Hooff said, including opera, theater, fantastic architecture and educational institutions like Irkutsk State Linguistic University, where she was based during her first trip, and the Siberian Academy of Economics, Law and Management, which is sponsoring her this time.

“Latitude-wise, it’s like where Vancouver (British Columbia, Canada) is … but it’s weather is similar to North Dakota.” It can be in the 100s in the short summer and minus-40 in the winter.

When in Russia, she does as the Russians do … dons fur from head to foot to keep warm.

“When it’s minus-40, it’s like, give me the fur hat,” she said.

Her research project, which she will be working on until next summer, is titled “Environmental Psychology and Politics of the Lake Baikal Region.” She’ll continue to “look at how people interact with nature, the ecosystem, their emotional attachments and what they think abut how those factors relate to the political sphere, how it affects voting and their involvement with environmental organizations.”

Her work, she believes, will show how the attachments people have to their environment influence their political leanings.

“People are connected to the land. … This (study) transfers over to anyplace where there’s frustration over the lack of natural resources.”

Hooff did not start out studying the environment or Russian.

In fact, she took Italian first at Bucknell, influenced by a trip to Italy she took the summer after her sophomore year through a Lions Club exchange. As an animal behavior major at Bucknell, she went to Miami, Fla., to work at a conservancy, where she discovered it wasn’t the field for her.

“I think that was just as valuable as finding what you want to do for rest of life,” Hooff said.

Between high school and college, she also traveled to the Czech Republic with a Rotary International youth exchange, and she returned to Prague for a foreign study program in college. Czech and Russian, she said, are both Slavic languages, and when she returned to Bucknell, she switched from Italian to Russian.

“Three years ago I never even heard someone speak Russian. Now I’m a certified translator and live in Russia.”

Following her year in Russia, she likely will either study environmental science policy and management at Central European University in Budapest, Hungary, where she already has been accepted on scholarship, or study Russian in St. Petersburg, where she also has been accepted.

Her enthusiasm for education and travel prompted her to start a group at Bucknell to teach local students about such exchange programs. She said it was rewarding to pass on what she has learned. She believes the group is continuing there.

“There are a lot of opportunities for kids. … My education, my path has been changed a lot by the opportunities I’ve had. It just kind of unfolds, ” she said.