Guest post by:
Penn State University ’17
Schreyer Honors College
College of Liberal Arts
The scariest part of study abroad is the uncertainty. Will the courses I take be challenging and improve my knowledge? What dangers could lie in wait in some foreign country? What kind of living conditions will I be subjected to? When I was narrowing down my choices for study abroad, I had a wide variety of programs to choose from. I speak six languages, and my credit load gave me flexibility in the kind of program I could attend.
Did I want to spend the fall in France or Germany? Maybe the Middle East or North Africa were more my style, or possibly India? In the end, I decided to go to St. Petersburg, Russia, from early September to late December. Most of my friends thought I was insane, after all, Russia? In the winter? How crazy could I be? In the end, spoiler alert, I loved my time, and I think it was a valuable experience, but in the beginning, there was no hint of what the future would hold.
Before I left, I made the brilliant decision of buying my mother a laminated page from an old newspaper depicting a bloodthirsty, bearded Bolshevik bearing down on a helpless Western woman — probably not the best decision given the current chilly relations between Russia and America. However, my mother knew I could handle myself in situations, and she had faith that, no matter what Russia could throw at me, I would be perfectly fine.
When I arrived in Russia, I met my host mother and sister (who would turn one year old my second weekend in the apartment). The ride from my hotel to the apartment was one of the strangest experiences of my time. One of the other student’s host father was driving my host mother, sister, myself, and the other student, and not knowing where I was, where I was going, or who these people were, I started my journey.
At one point, in the middle of nowhere, my host mother and sister got out of the car and, waving goodbye, went into a building. Alone with a man who was not my host father and a student I had only known for two days, I headed out, into the great unknown. That evening, I arrived in the city, where I was greeted by a man, my host father, and brought down an alley to a heavy metal door. Up three flights of stairs we climbed, finally arriving at another heavy door, this time wooden. We were greeted by a woman who can only be described as a “babushka.” It turned out, this was my host mother’s grandmother, and she was going to be staying with us for a while until my mother and sister were back from the hospital. My sister had surgery, and she would return later that week. In the end, everything worked out, and I just had to accept the insanity at the moment.
I had two programs in St. Petersburg to choose from, one that would be an intensive language program where English was forbidden, and an area studies program focused more on the history and culture of Russia with two intensive language classes. At the time, I was on academic probation for Schreyer as my grade point average was just below the required level. I was worried that I would throw myself in over my head if I took the intensive language path, and I decided I couldn’t risk my Schreyer status. I chose the area studies path, and I do not regret that decision. I feel that my classes provided insight into cultural factors that I might not have picked up on in an intensive Russian course.
The most dangerous part of my study abroad experience wasn’t in Russia. It wasn’t even in a country where you would expect to be in danger.
During November, we had two weeks to travel. The first week was a group trip to Kazan and then Moscow, and the week after, we could go anywhere we wanted. I chose to go to Italy, visiting two friends from home in Barcelona and Rome. Then, I flew to France, intending on visiting a student, Janie, with whom I interned with last summer. She was studying in Sciences Po, Le Havre and I flew from Rome to Paris, and that evening I took a train from Paris to Le Havre, to stay with Janie for the weekend. That night, lying on the floor of Janie’s dorm, we got word of a shooting in Paris. As the night progressed, we slowly understood how much danger I had been in just a few ours earlier, as I left Paris about an hour before the first attack.
It doesn’t matter where you are, danger can find you. Some countries are more dangerous than others, and that’s why I didn’t go certain countries for the fall, but it didn’t mean I was never in danger. No country is without its dangers, and sometimes, you just have to bite the bullet and take a chance.
I bit that bullet, and I went to a country everyone advised me against, but I came home with a love for Russia and for the Russians. The hardships of travel and of life without cheese (thank you, sanctions), gave me an appreciation for life as a Russian, and Russia will always be home.