This past summer, I had the opportunity to study Russian abroad in St. Petersburg, Russia, thanks to the Foreign Language and Area Studies fellowship. I had been to St. Pete before in late winter of 2013 on a short homestay. Prior to leaving, I was ecstatic to experience a familiar city transformed by summer. I expected to have a tough immersive experience with Russian while also being able to soak up the culture first hand.
My summer abroad strengthened my language capabilities in ways I couldn’t have imagined. If you have ever been on a crowded subway or even through an old McDonald’s drive-through, you know the struggle of understanding someone who talks too quickly through a grumbled speaker. This is the norm on Russian public transit. By the end of my term, the grumbled Russian ramblings became understandable. In August, I could carry on a conversation about Russian-American relations with the bartender who, in June, referred to me as the “silly American woman.”
Outside of classes, I spent my time in some of the most beautiful and interesting places I’ve ever been. The Summer Garden was my favorite place to sit and watch people. The first time I was in St. Pete, the garden was closed because it was winter. The Peter-Paul Fortress was where I spent most of my Saturday mornings. It was my favorite spot in the city in 2013, but it was even better with warmer weather. I experienced new places, such as Moscow, Peterhof, and some small villages and towns outside of the city. During my last week in St. Pete, I took a boat tour around the city, as it is made up of many canals. I watched the sunset over the fortress and, later that night, I watched the drawbridges rise over the Neva river. It was a necessary sight to see when you’re there over the summer.
I learned a lot about myself, the Russian language, and the culture during my time in St. Pete. To some degree, I expected much of what I learned and experienced. Perhaps the most valuable learning moments I had on my study abroad trip were through experiencing Russia as a foreigner on an extended stay. Going into my study abroad, I expected to be treated like I was on my first trip: people weren’t reluctant to use English to help me out when I was struggling to communicate my thoughts; when presented with my documents, they were kind and even struck up a conversation about me being American. This summer, the kindness towards my being American was drastically lacking. I experienced hate for my nationality. While in a McDonald’s, I was yelled at to “get out of our country.” Experiencing blatant distaste due to where I call home was new for me. What I felt in these instances has been branded into my brain more so than anything else I learned while abroad. Everyone says that the study abroad experience changes your perspective on the world and can even be life-changing. This is true in more ways than I can explain.
Sharadyn Ciota is an undergraduate double majoring in Russian, East European, and Eurasian Studies and Political Science at the University of Illinois. She was a Summer 2016 REEEC FLAS Fellow.