Thanks to the Fulbright U.S. Scholar Program, this fall Steven Usitalo, 45, will research the history of the Armenian genocide and teach a course at Yerevan State University in Yerevan, Armenia, during the 2011-12 academic school year. The Eurasian country, north of Iran, south of Russia and east of Turkey, has an estimated population of 4 million.
"It's a great honor and opportunity for myself, as well as for Northern," Usitalo said, who has been granted a leave of absence from NSU. "The Fulbright program is all about making connections, and I believe this will be a great chance for both universities to establish some type of relationship."
This international exchange program, formed in 1946, is an all-expenses-paid fellowship, including travel and food. Funds are provided by the U.S. State Department's Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs and is paid out in monthly stipends. Each year, approximately 800 American scholars and professionals receive the fellowship. Usitalo said the program offers opportunities for American faculty to conduct research, lecture and consult with other scholars abroad.
According to the program's website, this grant is considered very prestigious with 43 Fulbright alumni having won Nobel Prizes, including two in 2010. Also, 78 alumni have won Pulitzer Prizes.
Usitalo said the program operates in more than 155 countries, but he chose Armenia because of its rich history, and ties to Russia.
"I've always been intrigued with Russia," he added.
The Finland native said he developed an interest in Russian history and culture during his early years, before moving to Detroit at age 15.
As for teaching in Armenia's capitol, Yerevan, and at the largest university in the country, Usitalo said he's excited.
"I hope this experience will help me to become a better teacher," he said. "Perhaps I can bring back these different experiences and stories, and share with my students here. Sometimes it's those stories that make the difference, and enhance students' learning experience. It'll be great to contribute to that."
Another aspect of the fellowship includes a textbook Usitalo is writing on Russian and Soviet history. He said it will be field tested at Yerevan State.
"It's a lot of work, but the goal is to give the students at Yerevan State an outside perspective of the Soviet Union's history," he said.
Usitalo has been at Northern State University since 2005, and since his tenure he's also seen a fellow faculty member receive this honor. John Black, a French professor, received the fellowship in 2008 and visited Russia. In 2003, A.S. Elkhader, a math professor, also received the Fulbright fellow and visited Jordan.
"That's pretty good company to be in," Usitalo said. "And speaks loudly of this university."
Usitalo won't be traveling alone. His wife, Margarita, and 7-year-old daughter, Izabella, will also be making the trip to Armenia. The trip should be special for both, he said.
"My wife is a native of Yerevan, Armenia," Usitalo added. "This will be the first time in 20 years she's been home. So it may be a different experience for her."
For Izabella, it'll be her first visit to her mother's native country, Usitalo said.
"I think they both may be a little nervous," he said. "Mainly because of the length of this fellowship — nine months is a long time to be away from home. But I believe this will be a good experience for them. Armenia has a lot of culture and history, and I'm excited to experience it with my family."