Irina pointing out her home of Ulan-Ude, Buryatia and Lake Baikal on the world map with new friends at the Third Street Center. Courtesy photo

By Sarah Rose Johnson
Wild Rose Education

Sharing our love of water, land, mountains, culture, faith and teaching; the late summer exchange partnership with Irina Aiurzanaeva through the Eurasia Foundation US-Russia Social Expertise Exchange became more abundant than I could ever have expected.

I met Irina in January 2022 as she was a student in my virtual Leave No Trace Trainer (LNT) course along with four of her eastern Siberian colleagues and a handful of other students from the U.S.A. This course was a courageous adaptation of what used to be a two-day camping trip version of the LNT Trainer courses.

The virtual variation of the training course started in July 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Meeting in-person and fostering both a professional relationship and also a strong friendship with Irina would not have happened if I had not taken the risk of figuring out how to do what seemed nearly impossible at the time: virtual outdoor ethics trainer training.

Later, during the spring of 2022, Irina contacted me and let me know she had received a US-Russia Social Expertise Exchange (SEE) fellowship and she invited me (and my gig, Wild Rose Education) to be her U.S. host partner. The SEE fellowship is funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development.

I was very interested, and filled with trepidation, as the war between Russia and Ukraine was escalating and many U.S. interests were sanctioning all things associated with Russia. While seeking wisdom from mentors and those with more international professional experience than myself on whether to host Irina or not, simultaneously the Eurasia Foundation paused the process of the exchange program. I was cautiously ready to take the risk of sharing and offering to be an exchange partner; and yet everyone involved was saying, “Let’s wait and see what happens.”

Months later, in late July, I just about fell over when I got a message from Irina telling me she got her J-1 exchange visitor visa and would be arriving in only four weeks to Carbondale from her home in Ulan-Ude, Buryatia, Russia. In addition to receiving her visa, needing to get two Pfizer vaccines (Russian vaccines are not approved by the U.S. and European countries for travel), and traveling during a geo-political conflict, I did not believe it would actually happen.

Yet, after arduous preparations and three days of travel, she made it through six international airports and customs to arrive in Washington, D.C. with her small cohort of exchange fellows. After a week there, she traveled through two more airports to Western Colorado for two weeks to explore and learn together with me.

Our common passion for environmental education on public lands was central to our exchange experience. This time together became “our” exchange experience; Irina was not only a fellow learning from me, she was continually teaching me about her culture, landscape and perspective. I was learning to see my home through the eyes of an indigenous Siberian woman who is deeply connected to land and water.

I believe Wild Rose Education has been able to do such meaningful work, with public lands partners, educators, nonformal environmental educators and other conservation-focused organizations and professionals, because of its commitment to fostering and nurturing relationships. In that regard, I shared with Irina the people from my network to demonstrate how environmental education happens on public lands in Western Colorado.

Spending nearly two weeks exploring public lands managed by the U.S. Forest Service, National Park Service and Bureau of Land Management, I shared some of our most iconic and diverse places with Irina. Engaging with education staff from each agency created opportunities for learning and relationship building. We also engaged with public land partner organizations who do the work of education, trail stewardship and interpretation on public lands. And, together we attended and presented (individually) at the annual statewide environmental education conference hosted at a large retreat center near the headwaters of the Colorado River.

Throughout each of these encounters, all of the people involved also learned a lot from Irina: about her culture, her indigenous perspectives and her work as a national park educator for the Zapovednoe Podlemorie national reserve and Lake Baikal UNESCO Natural World Heritage Centre.

Throughout this once-in-a-lifetime exchange, we discovered numerous similarities of our respective landscapes on opposite sides of the planet: berries, cold lakes, pine trees, mammals, climate and more. We found wild raspberries and blueberries that reminded Irina of berries in her home taiga forest. Irina brought pine nuts from the native pine trees in her region that are very similar to the taste of pinyon nuts here at 6,000 feet in elevation. Swimming in cold high mountain lakes was similar to swimming in Lake Baikal. And many of the plants and animals have “cousin” species in each of our regions of the world.

Grounded in similarities in the landscape and ecology, this was a foundation for uncovering our shared values and many similar perspectives. This was the magic of this exchange experience. Irina and I became friends, hopefully friends for the rest of our lives. Our shared love of learning, exploring the world, having deep relationships with the land and water, building human relationships, valuing people more than institutions and having a strong personal spiritual life to ground us through it all was incredible to discover over the two weeks we spent together.

Perhaps this fast friendship was kindled so quickly due to the current geo-political conflict. I felt a deep need to serve as an ambassador of civil diplomatic kindness and develop a sisterhood type of relationship with a woman, colleague, visionary, intellectual, curious leader who is living her life in a difficult world and time. Throughout our time together, I thought about how, while I may never see Irina again, this experience needed to be one of meaning, connection, learning and joy that could help sustain both of us for years to come.

One day in the coming year(s), I hope to travel to Lake Baikal and the Buryatia republic of southeastern Siberia to visit my friend, Irina. I will learn more about her indigenous Buryat culture, swim in Lake Baikal, witness a ring seal and sable, understand the deep commitment of the people to protecting the regions’ unique biodiversity and ecosystem, speak some Russian and Buryat language, offer some environmental education trainings and develop an authentic relationship with the place and its culture.

Finally, I will continue to collaborate with regional, national and global partners such as the Eurasia Foundation to lead in context with a worldly mindset on how we do environmental and climate change education. Wild Rose Education’s people-centered learning experiences and projects teach people “how to see,” to become better observers of places and participants in their communities, leading them to take action in their world. It is with this creative and expansive mindset that we can go beyond what has been and facilitate possibilities for becoming what we can be, together.

Printed with permission from Wild Rose Ruminations,

Hear an interview with Irina Aiurzanaeva on Everything Under The Sun, The Sopris Sun’s weekly radio program archived online at

Irina and Sarah on Richmond Ridge of Aspen Mountain. Courtesy photo