Stories From Study Abroad: A Year in Russia

CATEGORIES: November 2013

Reminiscing About a Year-Long Study in St.Petersburg, Russia.

Kaylyn Mechem (Sociology major) and Joseph Gangsted (Aerospace Engineering major) are both Russian Studies minors who spent the 2012-13 academic year studying in St.Petersburg, Russia. The two students went to Russia on an ISU Affiliate program organized by the American Institute for Foreign Study (AIFS), and were fortunate enough to take classes in one of Russia’s oldest Universities, Polytechnic State. In addition to advanced Russian language classes, Kaylyn and Joseph took a number of electives offered in English, including courses in Russian history and contemporary and classical literature. For both of them this was their first extended trip outside of the US (in fact, for Kaylyn this year-long journey was her first ever trip abroad). Below, Kaylyn shares some memories from her trip.

How did you decide to go to St.Petersburg?

It started out as a joke at first. Our sophomore year (while taking Intermediate Russian at ISU), Joseph and I went to a movie night hosted by the Russian-Speaking Student Association. As we were walking home, we joked about going to Russia to sharpen our skills. We talked about it more and more until we realized that we really wanted to go. We picked St. Petersburg because it looked like a beautiful place and because both our Russian language professors had ties to the city (Professor Mesropova is originally from St.Petersburg and Prof. Zachoval studied in St.Petersburg’s Polytechnic State as part of his graduate program).

What was your first impression of St.Petersburg?

Saint Petersburg was a wonderfully diverse and beautiful city. It is and always will be my second home. I left a part of my soul in Saint Petersburg and that’s an incredible feeling.   548774_10151474970004129_1080814629_n To be honest, I have a hard time describing the beauty of Saint Petersburg to people because it happens to be a very unique city. It is the gateway to the west and the “Venice of the North.” It is a mix of traditional and new, classic and contemporary. The parks and museums there are the most beautiful and intricate I’ve ever seen. You cannot walk a block down the street without seeing something breath-taking.
Not only is the city gorgeous, but the people are friendly and kind. Anyone in that city would give you the shirt off their back if you really needed it. Whenever I got lost, and believe me, it happened more times than I’d like to admit, people were always willing to help.

What do you think was the program’s greatest impact on you?

Obviously, studying in Russia for an academic year greatly improved my speaking, reading and listening skills. For anyone learning a foreign language, the best way really is full immersion. I also gained a lot of confidence dealing with different people and traveling on my own. Studying abroad in Russia, I learned just how amazing experiencing another culture can be and how big the world actually is. I learned that there are good people everywhere. I realized how easily we take things, like communication, for granted, or how narrow-minded we can be. How often we forget there’s an entire world out there just waiting to be enjoyed. The world is a vast place, much bigger than many realize. Studying abroad gives you the chance to experience not just a new culture, but a chance to experience the world as well.
I think there’s something incredible about finding the courage to do something new and having the capacity to hold onto that same courage throughout something life-changing. It’s so easy to lose that courage, to see it bend under stress, but studying abroad is about facing fears and defining that courage. Removing yourself from a culture you’ve known you’re entire life can be terrifying, but you have to believe in yourself. It’s weird to see how much a study-abroad experience can change a person. It’s not a change you can easily see. It appears after the event that shaped you, in small ways at first. You feel more adventurous. You reach out to new people. But most importantly, you feel more confident and there’s nothing a confident person cannot achieve.

Looking back at your trip, could you share some of the most exciting experiences?

I’m a lucky person. I had loving parents who supported my decision to go abroad and, although Russia wasn’t their first choice, they still continued to believe in me. I cannot thank them enough for that. I also had the opportunity to go abroad with the person I love most in this world. Together, we were able to accomplish and see some pretty amazing things. We celebrated Christmas twice, once in Italy and again in Russia. We got to see ancient churches and glistening domes covered in fresh snow in Kiev. We walked across the Charles Bridge in Prague and ate tacos in Helsinki. In Tallinn, we bought elk soup from a little tavern, drank pumpkin ale under the stars and explored the ancient streets of Old Town.
I will never forget the people I met or the beauty I witnessed while in Russia. I made lasting friendships that will endure a lifetime and saw things that forever changed my perspective on life.