An original version of this article appeared in the 2020 TASIS Today.
While many alumni count TASIS as an influence that has shaped their lives, few can pinpoint the exact moment when their lives are inexorably changed. But Todd Drummond ’87 remembers exactly when it was: a spring holiday trip to Russia in 1985.
In January of 2020, Todd became the Director of Assessment and Education Services at the American Councils for International Education in Washington, DC. Before that, he was a Principal Researcher at the American Institutes for Research (AIR), also in Washington. His most recent international development work has focused on Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Ethiopia, Bangladesh, and Afghanistan. Prior to this he was the Acting Director of Office of International Studies in Education at Michigan State University, and in 2011 his Ph.D. dissertation won the Gill-Chin Award as the most outstanding dissertation in global studies at Michigan State University.
“I can say for sure that, like many TASIS alumni, my TASIS experience shaped my future path,” said Todd. Read on to learn more about his fascinating life.
It seems your life's trajectory was decided on a 1985 trip with Bill Eichner to the Soviet Union. Can you tell us about that trip, and what about it made you so fascinated by the country?
That TASIS spring break trip led by Bill Eichner was an incredible adventure. In the spring of 1985, Communist Party Chief Konstantin Chernenko had just passed away and Gorbachev had either not been announced as his successor or was perhaps just announced as the new party leader. In any event, those were the last days of the Soviet Union, times of turbulence and uncertainty. Little did I suspect that nine years later I would move to Kyrgyzstan (a former Soviet Republic in Central Asia), where I would learn Russian, get married, and eventually stay for 12 years.
At the time of our trip, there was still a sense of mystery about the Soviet Union. We were probably the last generation to be raised with a real fear of the Cold War turning hot, so it was incredible to discover the friendliness of the Russian people. And, of course, the history—the Romanov palaces, Orthodox churches, and museums were all fantastic. There were also many misadventures during those two and half weeks: for example, the awkward communication between us and Russian black marketeers who tried to buy our jeans—right on the spot! The opaque politicized answers of our official guides puzzled us. Then, there was the stuffing of all kinds of Soviet military souvenirs into our undergarments (amulets, patches, pins, hats, watches, belt buckles, etc.) in order to get through customs upon exit. We thought we were real James Bond types, or smugglers on a dangerous mission. Of course, things were not so funny when a classmate’s passport disappeared while we were clearing customs (another classmate discovered it in her purse when we touched down in Austria). As we departed, she was taken into custody and left behind! At the time it was scary and high drama—especially for her—but upon her release from her adventure she became the “legendary spy hero of Montagnola,” a survivor of real KGB interrogations! I was certainly intrigued enough by my experience to want to go back, and I pursued some Russian history courses in college.
Can you take us through a timeline of your life, from leaving TASIS to today?
Since completing my sophomore year at TASIS in 1985, international adventures have continued to be a big part of my life. The TASIS experience certainly shaped my future, both in terms of my outlook on life and my career choices; TASIS plants seeds that come to fruition later in life.
After TASIS, I never thought twice about going off to live in distant countries, or the challenges of navigating different cultures or languages—it just became something I took for granted and treated as normal. Like many TASIS students, I studied abroad again in college and studied European history and foreign languages. I did an internship with the State Department in Turkey right after graduation.
After completing a master’s degree, I spent three years in the Peace Corps teaching English in a small town in northern Kyrgyzstan. For me, making the choice to serve in the Peace Corps seemed like a natural next step in my journey to explore the world. Peace Corps was indeed “the toughest job I ever loved,” but I never hesitated for a second to join. Peace Corps service was challenging physically, emotionally, and intellectually and required lots of patience during an intense cross-cultural adaptation process.
After completing Peace Corps service, between 1998 and 2000 I had the privilege of leading US State Department-funded educational exchange programs in Central Asia. From 2002–2005, I led the introduction of a new university admissions system in Kyrgyzstan on a USAID-funded project, and was honored to receive an award from the president of the republic, Askar Akayev, for my stewardship of this work. After leaving Central Asia in 2006, I completed my Ph.D. and went back into international development work.
“TASIS plants seeds that come to fruition later in life.”
How was your philosophy on international education shaped by Mrs. Fleming and your experience at TASIS?
TASIS is the ultimate immersion into a world of powerful experiential learning at an age where the mind is open to the possibilities. It would be difficult to replicate this kind of learning in one’s home culture. I think the shaping that goes on, however, is an evolutionary process as you mature—at least it was for me. I can’t say that I did not appreciate TASIS at the time, but I do recall that I was not happy about being sent to TASIS at the start of my sophomore year: giving up my friends, the opportunity to get a car at the age of 16 in the US—these things seemed like such priorities. By the end of my sophomore year, however, it was sinking in just what an amazing experience TASIS was: the cross-cultural friendships, the weekend and in-program travel opportunities, the incredible learning about the world. I definitely left TASIS with a sense of profound sadness.
Obviously, international education has remained a big part of my life, and I have had opportunities to support others on their journeys as Mrs. Fleming did for us (in smaller ways, of course!). I have had opportunities to work in Africa, Eurasia, Eastern and Southern Asia, and Central America in the areas of literacy assessment and have also led study abroad in places such as Russia and Vietnam. I am an absolute believer in the power of the type of education that only experiences like TASIS can provide, and I have grown more and more appreciative of TASIS and Mrs. Fleming’s gift to us over the years.
“TASIS is the ultimate immersion into a world of powerful experiential learning at an age where the mind is open to the possibilities.”
Are there a few common tenets of education that you've found to exist in every culture and country? How can these help promote cross-cultural understanding?
Cross-cultural understanding comes through opportunities to interact, live together, work together, and learn together. I do believe there is a common desire in most cultures for education through profound cross-cultural experiences. What differs, however, is that for most students in the world, such opportunities are limited. It was not until I began to spend time in less-developed countries that I began to appreciate how privileged we are for having had the TASIS experience. Because I first experienced Kyrgyzstan through my Peace Corps adventures, I was able to see some realities I would not have seen living an expatriate lifestyle in the capital. The 1990s were difficult times. I remember needing to wear my winter coat and hat inside my classroom while teaching. Books and supplies were in limited supply, and teachers worked multiple jobs to survive. While the Soviet education system had many good qualities, the students in school after the collapse faced challenges their parents did not face. In the winter, food choices were quite limited. I spent a lot of time recovering from various illnesses.
The collapse of the Soviet Union, particularly the economic and social instability, however, was of course hardest on the people in my community, not me. In addition, most of my friends, students, and colleagues had tragic life experiences in their families that shaped their world views. The older generations had lived through famine, war, political persecution, and mass unemployment and lived difficult lives compared to what I had known. I certainly learned a lot from the people around me.
And, despite all their difficulties, my students and colleagues saw the opportunity to interact with me as their cross-cultural opportunity. I was the first English speaker most of them had ever met, including the English teachers. It was clear that they shared the same desire to learn about me as I did to learn about them. They spoiled me and showered me with lots of attention. How true it is that sometimes those with the least to give, give the most? The difference between my experience and theirs was that I was afforded the opportunity to learn while living in their culture, whereas most of them would never leave their hometown. It makes you appreciate all you have been given. I think as international educators, we need to do more to provide a broader spectrum of the world’s population the same type of learning opportunities we have had.
You've spent a lot of time in Kyrgyzstan. What about the country (and indeed the region) do you find so compelling?
Kyrgyzstan has been called the “Switzerland of Central Asia,” and it is an incredibly beautiful place. There are snow-capped mountains and scenic mountain lakes throughout most of the country, a great place for adventures off the beaten path. My wife and I love to be outdoors and spend time hiking and fishing, and Kyrgyzstan offers so much in this regard. The people are resilient and tough, yet incredibly warm and unimaginably hospitable. One of the greatest joys of my life is Russian literature, and I would not have the ability to read so many great works in the original language without my years spent studying Russian.
Perhaps a bit shocking to some, I find Kyrgyzstan to be a place of great social freedom on the interpersonal, daily level. Other TASIS alumni who live outside the US can probably relate to that. The divisiveness and polarization of political life in North America has increased to a point where I can honestly say that people in some otherwise “authoritarian” countries in some ways have more actual freedom of speech than we now enjoy, at least in terms of what can be openly discussed in public. In Kyrgyzstan, I found civility around discussions and debates with acquaintances and colleagues. I am not talking about freedom to criticize “the state,” but freedom to argue your views on politics, religion, etc. in the company of those who don’t agree with you. Friendships are not based on political party associations, and no one ever looked around to see which way the wind was blowing before they shared their views. Most people there judge you based on your character, how you treat your friends and your parents, and whether or not you are honest or reliable. There is far less concern about your “personal politics,” which has become so acrimonious in North America. In that sense there is freedom for deep discussions on topics that matter, and a very engaging intellectual life to be had. Perhaps the above reflections speak more to what has become of us here in North America, but it is what has stuck to me in the years since being back and what I miss the most about Kyrgyzstan.
We originally spoke back in the spring. Now that you’ve had a chance to view the United States through the lens of the 2020 presidential election, would you say that the acrimony has reached an all-time high? What is the climate like in Washington at the moment?
Historians point out that as a country we have faced more divisive times, but this is the most acrimonious period in my 51 years. In this last election, people seemed to be voting "against" the opposing candidate out of fear as much as voting out of excitement for their own candidate. Voices from the more radical elements of both parties have become more vocal and influential. In DC, before and after the election, there continue to be confrontations and harassment of tourists with opposing views; many of these incidents do not get covered in the media. I think a major challenge we need to face as a country is how to get candidates of good character into high office. The deep public intrusions into candidates' personal lives surely limit our options. I am not optimistic about the next four years, which could be some of the most divisive in our history, but my hope is that in 2024 we will be able to choose leadership that can re-build bridges across the divide.