Hannah Shipman reflects on the value of study abroad and lessons learned while living abroad on the Advanced Russian Language and Area Studies Program in Moscow as a Fulbright-Hays Group Projects Abroad scholarship recipient.
This summer I took one of the most wild rides of my life: a full-immersion study abroad trip to Russia. Through the Russian Area Studies and Language program (RLASP), I lived in Russia for two months, from the 8th of June to August 8th. My trip actually spanned from June 5th to August 12th, with a pre-trip orientation in DC and a few days spent recuperating from jet lag with family on the East Coast before returning to my home state of Oregon. All but the last week, in which I relaxed in Saint Petersburg, I stayed in Moscow, living with a host family of mother, father and twins (boy and girl). The 7-year-olds stayed with a nanny at the family’s dacha (country house) over the summer to make space for me in town.
Four days a week, Monday through Thursday, I attended classes at Moscow International University. From 9am to 3pm (and on Thursdays, till 5pm), I participated in classes for Russian phonetics, grammar, history, speech development, literature, cinema, even dance. All of these were total immersion style, taught by professors who had been with the program since the beginning, 40 years earlier. This was difficult to believe, considering how youthful a few of them appeared to me! We were divided into small groups, so I spent all class hours with the same group of four or five. We interacted as a team, increasing our learning power and objectively measuring each other’s progress. Grades were less important than the close relationships formed with teachers and fellow students.
After class ended each day, we enjoyed free time. I often wandered around the city, stopping by parks and museums. It seems to properly enjoy the short summer, Russians in general and Muscovites in particular like to hold festivals: concerts and things to do pop up all around town, but especially in Gorky Park and the city center. Of course, this was after the first week or two, when arriving at my apartment “home” was grounds for immediate nap time. Language learning is worth it, but it can take a lot of effort!
Every Friday, and some weekend days, we explored landmarks in the city, notable places ranging from a chocolate factory to an underground bunker to a day-long trip to Tula where Tolstoy was born and raised. I enjoyed visiting the Tretyakovskaya gallery, named after Pavlov Tretyakov, a benefactor of art who collected “the foremost depository of Russian fine art in the world.” However, the Hermitage in St. Petersburg outshone its “rival” in Moscow by the sheer grandeur of its rooms – truly a palace fit for a tsar. Since we were only in Saint Petersburg for a week, we had excursions there daily, with tours of several museums, the Tsar’s Garden, and the Peter and Paul Fortress, the first structure built in St. Petersburg. Sometimes the excursions were back-to-back: on the day we visited the Hermitage, I spent over four hours seeing the art from Russian, European, Byzantine, Egyptian, Indian and other cultural traditions, bought myself a lunch/dinner meal at a local Burger King (I was surprised at how many American brands I saw in Russia!) and then raced to catch a boat tour on St Petersburg’s canals and rivers.
I highly recommend studying abroad, especially as part of a language program. Learning another language teaches one how to think more critically and constructively about ordinary objects and situations, and studying it abroad gives one the opportunity to see it from an inside perspective. For example, being able to express myself in more than one language is both fun and useful, because translating between them teaches me to look for ways to work around a problem, to seek simple solutions instead of getting stuck on a difficult concept. Some other things I gained from studying Russian overseas were more confidence in starting conversations, especially in formal settings, new friends and connections abroad, and of course improved Russian language skills. I think I received a more balanced perspective on life and the world: I have a really big family, which means I am used to life being complicated and messy, but with my host family being so much smaller, I feel that I got a good example of managing life simply and effectively. I better understand what life requires and how culture affects one’s worldview.
So, it’s natural to wonder if these experiences and personal benefits have any usefulness on a broader scale. How can this help people in the corporate or governmental world? Why does this study abroad program make me more employable? To list some gains that are also necessary for building cross-cultural trust, more confidence in who I am and how I appear to others means that I better understand boundaries and how to protect and respect them; I can speak to Russians in their heart language, which shows that I am trustworthy, willing to put in the work to create a mutually beneficial agreement – and this opens the door to people of other nationalities and backgrounds as well. These qualifications mean that if I was hired for a government job, I could be more effective in international relations and be able to promote collaborative work.
About Fulbright-Hays Scholarships from American Councils
American Councils for International Education has received a grant from the U.S. Department of Education, Fulbright-Hays Group Projects Abroad, to provide scholarships for advanced overseas Russian and Persian language study. Learn more about the eligibility requirements here.
About Fulbright-Hays Group Projects Abroad
The Mutual Educational and Cultural Exchange Act, commonly referred to as the Fulbright-Hays Act, was made law by the 87th U.S. Congress under President John F. Kennedy on September 21, 1961. Senator J. William Fulbright and Representative Wayne Hays introduced the legislation, which represents the basic charter for U.S. government-sponsored educational and cultural exchange. 2016 marks the 55th anniversary of this landmark legislation. More information about Fulbright-Hays Group Projects Abroad can be found here.