In early August, eight curious high school students from Florida boarded a jet bound for Moscow.
Armed with an arsenal of T-shirts, blue jeans, bubblegum and a fluency in the international language of McDonald's restaurants, members of the McKnight Achievers Society, an academic and cultural honor society for African-American students, set out not just for a student exchange, but on a personal mission.
These students were the winners of a McKnight Achievers Society essay contest on environmental and cultural issues. Their goal was to see just what the new Russia and its teenagers are really like.
"The idea of the exchange was to have African-American and Russian students meet to discuss environmental issues, and the similarities and differences in their cultures," said group escort Mary Lindsey, executive director of the Hillsborough Center of Excellence, a member of the McKnight Achievers Society. "They really wanted to see if grocery shelves are empty and if Russian people are cold and empty."
From the moment they arrived, things in Russia were not quite what the American students had expected.
"We were shocked at their living habits. There were dogs all over inside the airport," said 15-year-old Michelle Hoff, a 10th-grader at Tampa Preparatory School. "You could never really expect this total cultural shock."
In three full days of roving around Moscow, the students saw Lenin's tomb, Red Square and the Moscow Circus.
Natalie Tindall, 14, found the Russians' curiosity about African-Americans interesting.
"As a black person going over there, people were touching our hair and our skin to see if it would rub off," said Tindall, a ninth-grader at Lakewood High School in St. Petersburg.
One Russian woman told Tindall that she really wanted to be her color, but God made her another so she had to accept it.
After the initial culture shock wore off, the students boarded a train for an eight-hour ride to Nizhny Novgorod.
The true hospitality of their young Russian hosts became apparent when they arrived at their hotel. The American students were greeted with a ribbon-cutting ceremony in their honor. Here, all the students exchanged gifts.
"We each received a Russian doll, their most precious gift," Hoff said.
In return, the American students gave their hosts rock 'n' roll tapes and bubblegum.
"They were just constantly exchanging gifts. They were swapping T-shirts, blue jeans and bubblegum. Bubblegum was the hot item," Lindsey said. "We came back with lots of gifts and left lots of gifts there."
Using somewhat comical skits to bridge the cultural gap, some curiosities were put to rest as the two groups showed each other just how they pictured the other's lifestyle.
"I don't think we were the way they pictured us," Tindall said. "They really don't have a perception of how American kids are supposed to be. They thought we listen to Walkmans, play cards and drink beer in class instead of listening to the teacher."
In turn, Tindall said the American students showed they saw the Russians as quiet.
"They keep to themselves and don't act out like American students act," Tindall said.
In a small country camp, the Russian students stressed the importance of nature.
"Bees are our friends. We should live in harmony with nature," was the Russian people's philosophy about nature, Lindsey said. She said it seemed the mosquitoes were not biting the Russian students as they explained their great respect for nature. "We learned (to be friends with nature) and after a while they stopped stinging us, too."
To help the American students learn to be one with nature, the Russian students took them to a country meadow. In a setting Hoff described as an endlessly rolling field, they played games together while enjoying a Russian folk dance.
"It was like a scene out of Little House on the Prairie," Hoff said. "They have such a high respect for nature."
The highlight of the trip came at the end. In groups of two, the American students spent two nights with Russian families.
"To go away to an unknown home in an unknown neighborhood was somewhat frightening," Hoff said. "(The American students) each gained a closeness that they would not have gotten if they had not had the experience of spending overnight time with the host families."
At the end of the 15-day visit, Lindsey said the students were surprised by how much they have in common. They arrived home with a greater understanding of other lifestyles.
"They handled the experience quite well," Lindsey said. "There is a big difference between talking about experiences and actually living through them."
The most precious souvenir the American students brought home was a greater appreciation for the American way of life. Being so far away from all the freedoms and luxuries that Americans tend to take for granted made these things look even brighter, they agreed.
"It's completely different from the way we live," Tindall said. "You really learn to respect what we have over here."