When I was looking at countries to study abroad, I knew I didn’t want to go somewhere “typical” for my semester. While places like the UK, Italy, France, and Germany sounded like amazing locations, I really wanted to go somewhere that isn’t exactly what most students think of when they are looking to study abroad. Russia seemed like an ideal location to get a non-traditional experience. I was thrilled when I found out that my school, Randolph-Macon College, was an affiliate with AIFS and had a program in St. Petersburg, Russia.
After arriving in St. Petersburg in February 2015, I had no idea what I had gotten myself into. Our plane landed at 4 in the afternoon, and it was already dark outside with about a foot of snow on the ground, not to mention the below freezing temperatures. Needless to say, it took a while to get used to living in Russia.
The Russian language is totally different from English (and almost no one speaks English there) so navigating a grocery store or even speaking to someone not from my program was extremely disorienting and scary. Even social interaction in Russia is very different from America in that Russians tend not to smile or act outwardly friendly toward strangers. As a Southern girl who is used to strangers being extremely friendly to me, this was off-putting at first. But I came to realize that people weren’t trying to be rude, and it was just a cultural norm.
I was also in Russia at a time when relations with the US were not at their greatest and when locals found out that my friends and I were American, they seemed a little surprised. While this usually sparked a friendly conversation on why we decided to choose Russia out of all places to study abroad, sometimes the discussion turned to politics. As Americans we didn’t feel comfortable discussing this topic with Russians in fear of offending them. We soon mastered the art of averting uncomfortable conversations like this, and it became normal to us.
Little by little, I began to settle into my new home for the next four months. I came to appreciate the little quirks that came with living in Russia, like not handing money directly to the cashier at the grocery store, every Russians’ obsession with cats, or getting used to having sour cream served on literally every dish. All of these seemingly small things that were strange to me at first soon became the things that I couldn’t imagine life in Russia without. When I finally returned to America and people asked where I had been for the whole semester, here’s how the conversation usually went:
Person: So where did you study abroad this semester? I haven’t seen you in so long!
Me: I studied abroad in St. Petersburg, Russia. I was there for about four months.
Person: (silence… eyes widen, jaw hangs open momentarily) WOW. Russia!? How was THAT? I can’t even imagine what that must have been like. Was it cold?
Me: …. Yes. It was cold. But it was the experience of a lifetime!
I don’t think I will ever get tired of the reaction I get whenever I tell people where I studied abroad. Russia is a place that is so mysterious to most of the world, and I feel so lucky that I was able to experience it. Non-traditional locations for study abroad can seem strange and scary at first glance, but they are also extremely rewarding and can make you see the world in ways you never thought you could.