Teens thank Tolstoy for trip to Russia

Two high schoolers from the Capital Region will start their first week of junior year a little diffe

Two high schoolers from the Capital Region will start their first week of junior year a little differently than their peers. Instead of school hallways and new classrooms, the Guilderland and Valatie girls will be touring Moscow and Tula, Russia.

That’s because the girls won this year’s Albany-Tula Alliance Essay Contest for intelligently describing Russian writer Leo Tolstoy’s influence on the thought of world leaders.

“How many times do you get to tell your friends ‘I’m going to Russia!’?” said Haewon Hwang, a student at Guilderland High School. “When this opportunity came up, when I found out I could write in order to go to Russia, it was an opportunity that seemed too good to be true.”

Hwang likes photography, music and playing tennis. She especially likes to write, and is currently managing editor of her school’s newspaper. Her winning essay, titled “Tolstoy: the Man Behind the Curtain,” looked at Tolstoy’s influence on Mahatma Gandhi, Albert Einstein, Martin Luther King Jr., Nelson Mandela and even John Lennon.

“I never really had much confidence in my writing, but that was because I always had to write for school — boring things at that too. But I came to the realization that when I really care about what I’m writing, I can write for hours and hours with a decent amount of quality material pouring from my brain. Thank you, Leo Tolstoy.”

The Albany-Tula Alliance is a sister-city organization with members from Albany and the greater Capital Region. Albany has a cooperative agreement with members in Tula that lets them promote understanding and cultural ties and inspire education, culture, health, science, business and technology.

This is the third year the volunteer organization has organized the essay contest. Hwang will join contest winner Rose Schneider, a junior at Ichabod Crane High School, for the week in Russia.

Schneider hopes to be a journalist, and recently re-launched her school’s Newspaper Club.

“I enjoy writing, especially creative fiction or nonfiction, but sometimes even find essays and papers to be fun,” she said. “This is why it was such a thrill for me to find out that I could write a paper and possibly be rewarded a trip for it.”

Both girls are VIP visitors. Along with chaperones, Hwang and Schneider will spend two days touring Moscow and five days in Tula as guests of the Leo Tolstoy Tula State Pedagogical University. In Tula, they will visit Tolstoy’s country estate and meet with students at local schools. They will also participate in the opening day of the university’s 33rd International Tolstoy Readings conference.

“I have always wanted to travel to another foreign country besides my French class’s trip to Canada,” said Schneider. “I can’t wait to see Russia.”

They arrive back home Sept. 9, so their first day of school will actually start Sept. 10.

Alliance board member Mary Emerson served as a jurist for this year’s contest, and said both girls showed careful and thoughtful approaches to their essays.

“We believe that inviting high school students to participate in this contest helps broaden their perspective on the global world they are growing up in,” she said.

Categories: News, Schenectady County

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