REEEC Associate Director Alisha Kirchoff was interviewed by American Councils about her study abroad experience in Vladimir, Russia (2004-2005). This is a re-posting of the original interview, which can be found at http://www.acstudyabroad.org/stories/kirchoff/.
Alumna Alisha Kirchoff was interviewed by American Councils. She reflects on how she became interested in Russian, her time abroad with American Councils, and how her experience abroad led to meaningful work in the field of Russian and Eurasian Studies.
AC: Tell us how you originally became interested in Russian language and culture?
AK: There were a collection of things that piqued my interest in Russian during my childhood and teen years. For example, I read A LOT of Dostoevsky after being introduced to Crime and Punishment in my AP European Literature course. Thankfully, I learned that there is more to Russian literature than Notes from the Underground. When I was in high school my family participated in a Kiwanis Club short-term exchange program for banking professionals from Russia and we had two gentlemen stay with us for a couple of weeks. One was from St. Petersburg and the other from Sochi. It was a great experience for me because I got to learn about Russia from real Russians, who taught me a few words and a bit about customs, humor, etc. When I got to college, I decided to give Russian language classes a try. Thanks to the fantastic instruction I received at the University of Wisconsin and the guidance from Prof. Ben Rifkin, I had declared a major in Russian by the end of my first semester. Prof. Rifkin also helped inform my choice to study abroad with American Councils, which would come a bit later.
AC: Why did you choose to study abroad?
AK: In hindsight, there were a lot of reasons to study abroad. There is something to be said for having a personal connection to a place, language and civilization that one is studying. There are some incredible educational resources at American universities, but nothing can compare with being there. At the time, however, I think that my main motivation was professional. I wanted a good job in a field that would allow me to use my area studies and language expertise. At the time, I thought I would go to work for the government, so I applied for a NSEP Boren scholarship, which I saw as another building block for my professional profile. I had a hard time seeing myself as a professional using Russian without having been there for myself.
AC: What was your experience like in Vladimir that year?
AK: Going to Vladimir was probably the best thing that could have happened for me. The instructors at CORA were so invested in our progress and success, and they have all been highly trained to deliver quality instruction to their students. My primary objective for studying abroad was to improve my language skills as much as possible in the time I had. My expectations were exceeded in Vladimir. People study abroad for lots of reasons, but if someone’s foremost interest is in improving their language skills, they should absolutely choose the Vladimir option.
AC: Tell us a bit about your expectations going in to the program versus the realities you experienced abroad.
AK: It’s difficult to remember what my expectations were going in to the program. I do remember it being more challenging than I thought. I entered the program with 3 years of college level Russian and a lot of literature/history/area studies courses under my belt, but I still found the coursework to be rigorous, and there were days when simple interactions (like the kind we practice hundreds of times in class!) were so confusing. Taking a Russian language or culture class is one thing, but being there to live the language and the culture is far more challenging to adapt to than I fully appreciated before I went. I also thought that culture shock wouldn’t affect me as much as it did. I had this idea that, even though I expected to miss home and feel something like culture shock, that I really knew what I was in for. I had read all these books and learned everything I possibly could before I went to try and avoid those classic symptoms of culture shock, but I still struggled with it in a very real way.
AC: What was the most valuable aspect of your time abroad?
AK: At the risk of being too abstract, the most valuable aspect about my time abroad was the person I became through the process. The other two people in Vladimir with me for the academic year are still among my circle of good friends–we have experienced other important life events with and through one another (weddings, graduate programs, military service). I also learned how to stick up for myself and developed a great deal of maturity during my year abroad. I was a more passive person when I arrived in Russia than when I left. I guess someone cut the line at the Vokzal in front of me one too many times!
AC: How was life with a host family?
AK: I had a great host family. I lived with a mother and daughter–they were both teachers in town. They had a nice apartment on the SW side of town. I felt especially lucky because there was a TV in my room and I think some of my Russian skills improved by watching American movies on the movie channel dubbed into Russian. I already knew the storyline for some of the films and it really helped to be able to carefully listen to the dialogue. I have lots of fond memories of knitting and sipping tea with my host mother and watching movies together on the brutal winter evenings. Both my hosts and I are avid knitters, and I learned so many interesting techniques from them. They taught me a lot of “life skills” — it was a warm and nurturing environment for me.
AC: Outside of class, what type of relationships and activities did you pursue that were most meaningful?
AK: I made a good friend through the tutoring (kurator) program. I was well-matched and not only developed a long-term friendship with my tutor, but also got to know his family and keep in touch with them as well. I also did some volunteer work at a center for women and children in town during the fall term. This was an interesting experience in a number of ways, but not the least of which was learning more about organizational and professional culture in Russia, using office and computer applications in a different context. There is an entirely separate set of computer-related vocabulary that I would not have been introduced to otherwise. In the spring, I worked with a professor from the local university to develop and write my own research paper. He helped me learn how to use the library and write a massive paper (I think it was close to 20 pages) on the reasons for the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan. In hindsight, I realize that this was a Herculean task, and I can’t believe anyone let me do it. It was so ambitious and difficult; it really prepared me for writing a Master’s thesis…
AC: When you think back on your experience, what was the one most memorable moment that sticks with you?
AK: Taking a late fall trip to Sochi/Adler and standing on the shores of the Black Sea for the first time. I remember thinking that it was so beautiful that it was almost overwhelming. I couldn’t imagine any other place that could be so vast, yet so intimate. It was also that trip (and 48 hours on a train each way) that revealed the vastness and diversity of Russia in real, lasting terms to me. The Black Sea region was so different from what had become familiar to me in Vladimir and Moscow at that point; I finally began to realize how exceptional Russia is.
AC: What did the program enable you to do upon your return? How did it change you?
AK: Russia made me a stronger person, a more aware person, and it opened my eyes to how life can be so different in another place, but that people can still find many things in common. On my train trip to Sochi, I met a couple on the train who were vacationing from Voronezh. We got to talking about American politics, President Bush, and the Iraq war, which was in the middle of its second controversial year. When the topic came up, I was preparing myself for a contentious discussion about the ills of American intervention abroad, but instead that conversation became one of great sympathy from my new friends towards the American families sending their children to go abroad to fight in a war that had such a seemingly unclear purpose. I remember the woman with whom I was speaking saying something to the effect of “no one knows better than us how people can be victims of their government.” That conversation really stuck with me. It was a good example of how people can disagree with policy decisions without losing their compassion for the human cost. That lesson has been particularly useful for me as I think about some of the violent and unfortunate events in Russia and involving Russia in the region as of late. People and their government are not always the same thing. The current situation in Ukraine is a very good example of this. My time in Russia helped me to learn that there is a way to dislike a collective action without judging or hating the individual actors.
AC: How did the experience abroad affect your career path?
AK: After returning from a year abroad, I knew that I wanted to enroll in an area studies MA program, and went on from Wisconsin to the University of Toronto program in European, Russian, and Eurasian Studies. From there, I was hired as the Program Coordinator for the Eurasia Program at the Social Science Research Council (SSRC). After I was hired at SSRC, I was told that one of the standout items on my resume was the fact that I had spent an entire academic year in Russia. Because of this, they were confident in my abilities to work on projects that took place in Russia, and engage with Russian scholars and students. I would say that my study abroad experience was a very important factor in my hire at SSRC, and my position at SSRC led me to a job that I love now working at a University where I get to work with scholars and students interested in the region every day. I feel so fortunate to have had these opportunities that led me to a job I truly enjoy.
AC: Would you recommend the American Councils program to others? Any words of advice for those who may be unsure about studying in Russia?
AK: I would and I do. I have the great pleasure of working with college students in my current position (Associate Director of the Russian, East European, and Eurasian Center at the University of Illinois). There are always hundreds of reasons not to do something. If you are interested in it at all, you should go. You will never know the ways in which it can and will enrich your life. You are more likely to regret not going than you are to regret making the attempt.