header image

Study Abroad 2017 — My Reflections

Posted by: Oksana Ingle | 07/09/2017 Comments Off on Study Abroad 2017 — My Reflections |

OUR ENCOUNTER ON THE OVERNIGHT TRAIN with Boris reminded me of when I lived in the Soviet Union and my experience going through the chaos in Russia during the 1990s. It is a different country now, and it continues to change each year when I visit.

I love taking students to my home country, particularly because I get to see it through their eyes. American travelers to Russia, especially those learning the language through immersion, help break illusions that exist in both countries. They are often surprised to learn just how much Russians appreciate them and want to hear their personal opinions and impressions, not just about Russia, but about America and their larger view of the world.

In the case of my students, they also get to see Russia through my eyes, through the first-hand experience of a native who has family and close friends there, and who knows people in different cities. The average tour to Russia doesn’t even begin to compare with what students get exposed to and have the chance to see, largely as a result of so many people in Russia who welcome us and spend time with us on these trips.

I cannot thank all of them here because it would take pages. But I would like to thank three special people—the professors of Russian literature at Mordovian State University who, together with their colleagues, made us feel at home for nearly three weeks by treating us like extended family, such as by bringing us a set of dishes to use in the dorm, baking cakes for us, taking us to their favorite places, and introducing us to their friends and family:

Dr. Elena Alexandrovna Sharonova took care of a multitude of details and logistics, both before our arrival and during our entire stay. Among other things, she coordinated visa invitations and registration, dormitory accommodations, classroom schedule, cultural excursions, and much more.

Dr. Svetlana Petrovna Gudkova showered us up with her warm, vivacious energy wherever we were: cooking for us in the dorm kitchen, taking pictures of us on our outings, and pampering the girls in the bathhouse with her homemade food, special creams, and helpful advice.

Dr. Svetlana Anatolievna Dubrovskaya always made a point of spending her free time with us, lecturing in the classroom, researching information for us, and even involving her husband who was always ready to give us a ride late at night or in the wee hours of the morning.



NEEDLESS TO SAY, I also enjoyed getting to know my students during this trip. They were very receptive, each with their own interests, and as a group very appreciative of every opportunity. Here’s a short profile of each of them, along with entries from their daily journals (in English and Russian).



In Saransk, the home of the university where our group studied for 3 weeks, English translators were sparse. Usually I was interpreting during our excursions and events. When we visited the World War II museum, I didn’t know some military terms and weapons. But George knew them all, in both languages, and helped me translate. Earlier, at the military museum in St. Petersburg, he so impressed the curator with his knowledge and interest that he got the promise of a job once he masters conventional Russian!

From George’s Journal: When we arrived in Volgograd, we went to the hotel and rested for a few hours. Then we went to Mamaev Kurgan. I have never seen something so sad and grief-inducing, yet so patriotic.

Когда мы прибыли в Волгоград, мы отправились в отель, где мы отдыхали. Затем мы отправились на Мамаев Курган. Я никогда не видел ничего более грустного, но столь патриотичного.



A friend asked me if we would like to come to in Pushkin Park for a third-grade English class in preparation for the 2018 FIFA World Cup. It was to be broadcast on local TV. Michael and I arrived first. By the time the girls arrived, the kids had finished working on all 10 phrases for the day. I told my group to get ready for the “show.” Everyone looked worried. I said to Sam, “Come on, Sam, you can’t be afraid of the camera. You want to make professional movies.” Sam replied, “I am used to holding the camera, not being in front of it.” I went to talk to a young man who looked like the manager and, pointing at my group, told him that the third-graders can practice their English with real Americans. He spoke to the director and the cameramen suddenly pointed their cameras at my students. The director introduced each of them over the microphone which was also connected to  loud speakers. My students looked terrified and started backing up. The third-graders were excited and came very close to my students. Sam and Michael then found their courage, put on their guarded American smiles, and introduced themselves in Russian. They soon relaxed, became charming, and spoke for several long minutes into the microphone, warmly answering questions for the young children.

From Sam’s Journal: In the morning, we listened to a folk music group Torama that will play at the FIFA World Cup in 2018. They were amazing. I am really glad that we were allowed to watch their rehearsal. We took a picture with them. After we were able to talk with some of them. Also, we have hot water for the first time since we arrived in Saransk. Today was a good day.

У нас не было занятий утром. У нас были занятия днем. Утром мы слушали музыкальную группу “Торама”, которая будет играть на чемпионате мира по футболу в 2018 году. Они были потрясающими. Я очень радa, что нам разрешили посмотреть их репетицию. Мы сфотографировались с ними. Также у нас есть горячая вода, впервые с тех пор как мы прибыли в Cаранск. Сегодня был хороший день. 



We had purchased every last ticket on the train from Kazan, which was packed with parents and grandparents taking their kids to the south on the first days of summer break. Each of us had to travel in a different wagon! Everyone was a little (or a lot) worried. Sidney looked the most concerned, but when we regrouped on the platform after our 9-hour journey, everyone had a story to tell, and Sidney was radiant. She energetically told us about a Russian babushka who bought her tea and was feeding her sweets all the way and how she, Sidney, was speaking Russian with her host. Forced to be on her own, she had discovered that she knew more than she realized, which delighted her—and me.

From Sidney’s Journal: In the train I was assigned a cabin with a little babushka who was extremely sweet. We were also with her daughter and her daughter’s little son. The babushka kept giving me sweets and candy and tea. She was very persistent that I keep eating the candy and we had a nice chat. The conductor on the train was also especially nice and kept introducing me to other people he worked with. He eventually came to our little cabin and I was sitting on the bottom bunk and all of the Russians were telling me I looked like Cindy Crawford. I’m hoping they meant a younger version of her.

Я была в купе с очень милой бабушкой, ее дочерью и сыном ее дочери. Бабушка купила мне чашку чая и подарила мне много-много сладостей. Я съела пять конфет, и бабушка сказала: «Тебе не нравятся конфеты?»

Today we went to a place that said it had “Russian Japan” food. Its kind of comical how they try to bring different kinds of foods from various cultures together. We went to the Russian Ballet and saw some amazing story telling through dance. I loved the one called “Passionate Love.” It told a story that I could follow a little more easily than others. I enjoyed the traditional sort of tribal ballet too.

Сегодня мы пошли в итальянский ресторан. В ресторане не было Wi-Fi, и я узнала, что он не работает. Мы спросили у официантки, почему, и она сказала, потому что он не работает. Я думала, что эти забавные русские не задают вопросов.



Yelle was usually the last to speak in our group conversations. But when she did, I was often impressed with her insights. Once at dinner at an Indian restaurant (everyone wanted a break from Russian food), we started talking about Indian religions, then about the Mahabharata. I asked if anyone knew the story of Krishna, and Yelle said she had taken a course where she learned… and then told us the beautiful story of Krishna.

From Yelle’s Journal: I didn’t really know what to expect out of this trip when I thought about coming to Saransk, I kept imagining so many different scenarios and events, but I’m happy to say that not one of them happened because everything turned out so much better than I could have ever imagined. I loved the city, everything was so beautiful there, and I loved being able to walk everywhere, it was kind of like being in Charleston. Even the classes were great because I enjoyed everything we did and I learned a lot about Russian culture, both by reading about it and experiencing it simultaneously, the entire city/country has been our classroom for the past three weeks; everything we do is a learning experience here.

Сегодня был наш последний день занятий. Все работали, чтобы закончить их сочинения, но мы потом пошли в парк, чтобы праздновать день рождения Пушкина. Многие студенты читали стихи и танцевали. После мы снова встретились с фолк-рок группой “Торама”, и они сделали нам флейты, но я не получила флейту.

I met so many wonderful people and every single one of them made us feel welcomed, I can’t remember meeting a person who was ever unwelcoming to us, not even strangers we interacted with on the streets; when people found out that we were American they immediately tried to help us out and make us feel comfortable, I don’t think something like that would have ever happened in America. I’m so heartbroken to be leaving Saransk and while I’m eternally grateful for the experience, I do believe that it is time for me to go home.



Whenever students needed a handy interpreter (for example, at the cloakroom at the Kremlin museum or in the dorm where we stayed), Michael was the one. On one of our last days in Saransk, he had two twenty-minute conversations in Russian with two Russian students during a taxi ride. They discussed various topics, including, “What is your major?” and, “What do Russians think about Americans?” Michael also had some excellent questions in Russian for his interview about the Russian revolution with a distinguished professor and writer. After they finished talking about the revolution, the professor inquired, “May I ask, what do you think about your government?” Michael quietly replied, in perfect Russian: “Мне очень стыдно за мое правительство (I am very embarrassed for my government).” On hearing this reply, the professor gently and quietly, said: “А мне очень стыдно за мое (I am also embarrasessed for mine),” after which they both were silent. It was a powerful moment for me, watching a fine young American and a fine old Russian looking at each other in silence.

From Michael’s Journal: I am increasingly convinced that to physically experience and see a building or work of art carries with it an intangible power quite distinct and unique from viewing the same building or work online or in a book. I have viewed Ilya Repin’s works before, and they have produced emotions in me—some being powerful ones. Yet as I stood before his works in the Tretiakov Gallery, my feelings toward his works were so much more visceral than when viewing a reproduction of his work. The brushwork, the textures, the colors—all were so much more alive. If I had not come to Russia, these experiences would have never happened, and I would be a lesser person for it.

Я не знаю, как начинать. Наконец я в России. Сегодня я увидел здания, места и соборы, о которах я только читал. Книги и фотографии не передают красоту этой страны. Эти русские места красивее, чем фотографы показывают.

Why does everything here seem so much more amazing? Maybe routine and familiarity blinded me to the small pleasures of life—trees, flowers, vistas. Perhaps I have been too focused on the wrong things in life, and only now, after being thrown into an alien land, have I paused and questioned my life. It seems to me that I am not so distinct from Akakii Akakiievich or Ivan Ilych. I’ve lived for the wrong things; I’ve lost sight of what’s important.

Какой интересный день! На улице у моста, у Кремля в Москве бабушке нужна была помощь, но я ее не понимал. Я думаю, что она хотела знать, как переходить улицу, но я не понимал. А потом, снова перехожу через мост, вторая бабушка, которую звали Ирина Антоновна, ей тоже нужна была помощь. Она искала метро. Какое странное место!



When we were checking into our dorm in Saransk, the students introduced themselves to the security guards who watched everyone coming in and out of the building and who kept room keys whenever we went out. Carol, a retired CofC psychology professor, was among our students. At one point, the guards took me aside and asked why this older lady is with the students? I explained that in the States many educated retired Americans take college classes and travel abroad. I said that Carol is very interested in Russia and Russian, and she has surprised the younger students with her ability to physically keep up with them. She even climbed all 262 steps of the winding, treacherous stairway inside Isaac’s Cathedral (the fourth largest cathedral in Europe).

From Carol’s Journal: As a retired professor and victim of wanderlust, being in the student role and traveling with a knowledgeable instructor who is also a native of the place seemed to me to be the best way to experience Russian culture and to work on my fledgling language skills. As a social psychologist, it was also a great opportunity to ponder a topic that is important to my professional interests, namely stereotyping. For example, a trip on the Moscow metro might lead you to believe that most Russians are curt and unfriendly, rarely making eye contact as they race by and cram themselves into packed subway cars where they wait silently with morose expressions to reach their destination. When we’re short on experiences, however, we’re likely to generalize from a few observations and end up with a shortsighted view of a different culture. In the case of Russia, a bit more time and thoughtfulness helped us realize that the subway travelers we saw on their way to work were behaving very much the same as in other cultures.

Я спала в одном купе с советским офицером в России! (Ха-ха!)


Our Group

One evening after attending the theater, we were on our way to dinner when we met a professor I knew. As we were talking on the sidewalk, her student and his girlfriend stopped to say hello, and my students tried to speak Russian with them. My students were also nicely dressed because they had learned from their textbook that you dress up when you go to the theater in Russia. The Russian boy’s girlfriend seemed impatient. She finally pulled him by the sleeve and said, “Let’s go, they don’t look American”—which, coming from her in that context, was a fine compliment to our group. That brief encounter also led to a wonderful conversation during our dinner.

under: Articles, My Travel Journal, Study Abroad 2017

Comments are closed.


Skip to toolbar