Christopher R. Kelley, Associate Professor of Law at the University of Arkansas School of Law, shares his experiences with the US-Belarus Observer on launching a law student exchange program between the U.S. and Belarus.
At the University of Arkansas, Professor Christopher R. Kelley sits in his office with a Belarusian flag hanging on the adjacent wall. He points to the flag and states, “More than half of the students in Arkansas don’t even know where Belarus is. Here is this Belarusian flag in my office. Start the conversation here. What is this flag? What is that about?”
Kelley did not want to just start the conversation in Arkansas, he also wanted to have students continue the conversation in Belarus. After becoming the first American law professor to teach at Belarusian State University (BSU) in Minsk, the capital of Belarus, he decided to bring over American law students. Following approval from both universities, he designed the Transnational Negotiation course, which would have American law students meeting in the fall semester and going to Belarus over their spring break. During this trip, American law students would team up with Belarusian law students to engage in negotiation exercises. Kelley states, “I know the value of person to person contact. The ideal is to live in a country. But that’s hard to do in the setting of law school. So the next best thing is to get students there for as long as I can. While there, I want my students to have as much contact as possible.” Outside of the classroom, American students would also meet with government officials and tour cultural sites in Belarus.
The first group of University of Arkansas law students went to Minsk in 2013. Aside from learning about negotiation, American students also had to undertake additional preparation including extra readings on Belarus. Once there, students also took full advantage of the opportunity for cultural education. “My favorite part of the trip was the exchange with the Belarusian students, both in class, during negotiations, and after class when they took us to some of their favorite local joints,” said third-year law student Andrew. “On Thursday night we bought dinner and drinks for the Belarusian students at a traditional Belarusian restaurant, to show our appreciation for the wonderful hosts that they were. It was truly a great trip filled with cultural exchange and diplomacy.”
American students also learned by teaching Belarusian students the content during negotiations. Belarusian students were able to benefit immensely from this, even just from language exposure. “All of the students in the course spoke English but some were better at it than others,” an American student shared. “So not only were we working on negotiations, we also helped the students who weren’t so strong in English understand what the issues were and in a sense helped them with their English skills.” Belarusians also praised the program, and Associate Professor Darya Lando at BSU shared her thoughts: “We were very interested in this project because we understood that it was a chance for American students and Belarusian students to understand issues better. Moreover, formally and informally they had a chance to compare different systems of education and probably different points of view with respect to Belarus and the United States.”
Even with immense cultural education, the goal of the course and experience remained development of negotiation skills in an international setting. Kelley states, “One of the reasons I teach negotiation is because it’s universal. I don’t want to suggest there aren’t cultural differences… It’s important for both BSU students and American students to practice negotiating across cultures because the world is globalized. The practice of law is global these days.”
One third-year law student, Nick, shared his overall impression of the experience: “I think this course was unique because the class created interaction, through legal education, with foreign students. The practical exercises that we engaged in with the students from Belarus taught me not only a lot about myself as an individual and American, but also a lot about others. One student said it all, ‘We are all people.’ I think this theme sums it all up. It was fascinating to see the similarities in negotiating styles between everyone. I was surprised to learn that the students were more alike in their goals than not.”
International experience programs, such as this one, do more than mutually benefit students through acquired skill-sets, they also broaden students’ horizons. One American student commented, “I’m definitely still interested in a career in international law after going to Belarus. Belarus was amazing!” Another stated “Being in Belarus has enhanced my desire to work in international law.” Kelley also has had positive experiences in Belarus, so much so that this year he will teach at the BSU Law Faculty during his spring break for the fifth consecutive year, which will be his eleventh time teaching in Minsk. He states with a smile, “Minsk is one of my favorite places… I got lost the last time I was there. I stopped 3 people, and I knew a little bit of the language. Two of the people were middle aged, and they looked at me and switched to perfect English. These are middle aged people, not young people! In perfect English, they told me exactly where to go!”
Kelley also understands the long-term impacts of such international education programs, “The most moving story I can tell you is from last spring break. I taught the negotiation course in the afternoon [in Belarus]. One of those students did not speak a word of English, but she came to every single class. If participating in that class helps her and inspires her, I consider that a success.” In regards to the future of the program, he states “I see the future of courses like Transnational Negotiation, as where we teach by distance, where we negotiate via Skype, and where students can record negotiations.” However, he also adds, “There is no substitute for students going to Belarus. It is essential.”
International educational programs are also extremely important for developing relationships between countries. Lando comments on her experiences in coming to the U.S., “It was easy to participate in these exchange visits, and I am very grateful to the Dean of Arkansas School of Law because they gave me the opportunity to see their way of teaching… as far as I can see everyone is very pleasant and interested in maintaining our relationship. I had a chance to visit New York City which I enjoyed. And, of course, I enjoy the lifestyle here and the people.”
On his most recent trip in March 2016, Kelley received a certificate of appreciation and a wristwatch from Dr. Sergey V. Ablameyko, BSU’s Rector. Kelley summarizes the importance of building relationships between the two countries: “I am trying to get American attorneys to go there. I see a future because there is a great opportunity there, [one that is] mutually beneficial to both sides. When I talk to professors at BSU, they want to do the same thing…I have been very impressed with the attitude, especially at the law faculty. They are as welcoming as anywhere I have been – because really we all live un- der one roof.”
You can reach Professor Christopher R. Kelley at email@example.com