Taylor Jackson discusses her experiences with race and identity while studying abroad on the Advanced Russian Language and Area Studies Program in Moscow as a Fulbright-Hays Group Projects Abroad scholarship recipient.
To whoever needs to hear this,
This letter is very similar to one that I wrote while I was in Saint Petersburg to those choosing to study abroad who don’t necessarily fit the mold. By mold I mean anything that sets you apart from the environment you’re entering, the people on your program, the “typical” person who chooses this path, language, etc. As an African American woman in Russia for two semesters, I was constantly othered. Constantly. While walking down the street, I felt all eyes on me, and, unlike my friends, it wasn’t because I was speaking English or being too loud, but because of my appearance. Dealing with this on a daily basis was isolating and draining, especially given the fact that I was trying to engage with the host country’s language, culture, and people. Not fully knowing how to engage with Russian culture and not having a concrete grasp on the language made this all the more challenging.
Initially, I thought that I could just ignore the stares and keep my frustrations to myself, but, as time went by, I realized how unrealistic that thought was. Holding all of it in was painful, and pretending it didn’t bother me was the hardest part. I wasn’t honest with myself about how I was feeling, and not being honest with myself was truly difficult. I began to question whether or not I would progress in my language abilities, and I wondered if this was something I wanted to continue to do. I could no longer defend the actions of those around me as curiosity and ignorance because their actions continued to have a negative effect on my experience. Being different in a community that seems so homogenous was a constant struggle, and, during my third week in my first semester in Saint Petersburg, I broke. I was over it. I was tired of being looked at, talked about, approached, touched, etc., and I strongly considered giving up. However, with the help of the friends I made on the program, family and friends supporting me back home, and a change in my mindset, I reevaluated why I chose to study abroad in the first place. I remembered that I was a strong, independent, intelligent, black woman, and my differences are what make me unique.
I began to trust in the process of language development, and I was able to relax within myself by understanding that my circumstances shouldn’t stop me from trying my hardest to engage with my host country’s language and culture fully. As I became more confident speaking and understanding native Russian speakers and participating in cultural activities, I felt more at ease.
My advice to you, which I wish I was given before both of my programs, is don’t be afraid to confide in those close to you and be honest with yourself. It’s easy to fall into a space where you think that you’re the only one who can possibly deal with your pain, stress, and discomfort. Also, don’t be surprised if others on the program don’t immediately notice, or even notice at all, the difference in the way that you’re treated compared to the way that they’re treated. Often, people don’t recognize how things that don’t affect them affect others, no matter how much they would like to. Every experience is different. Also, as hard as it may seem to engage with a country’s culture and language, you get out of your experience what you put in. When you look back at what you’ve gained from your experience, and you know that you gave your all, it’s a different feeling of accomplishment. Your growth and the application of what you’ve learned will shape what you do in your future.
Lastly, know that the struggles you face during your time abroad will help you understand that you are capable of more than you think you are. This will be a strengthening experience, not one that breaks you. Know that the only thing that stands between you and a great time abroad is the mindset you choose to have while engaging with those around you. Own your differences because they make you powerful. I wish you luck, and I know that you can do it because I did.
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.