Volunteering (often referred to in the study abroad world as “service-learning”) is one of the best things you can do for yourself as a study abroad student. Working in a local institution allows you to meet new people, practice your language skills, and learn what it is like to work abroad. The only downside is that you don’t get paid, but given the other benefits, I think it all balances out. This is especially true if you can find a way to volunteer in the field in which you hope to build your career.
AIFS does a great job of finding volunteer opportunities. The most common ones are working as an English teaching assistant at a nearby school, and volunteering at the Hermitage Museum (usually as a greeter, or working on various curatorial projects in the back). Students usually want to volunteer in orphanages, but these have strict staffing bureaucracies that make it difficult to arrange. Two students this semester did their own research, and chose to work at a rescue stable and therapeutic horseback riding program.
I chose to volunteer at the Hermitage, an obvious choice given my major in historic preservation and concentration in museum studies. I was ecstatic when I found out that it was so easy for AIFS students to volunteer there—there is a simple application, and then all you need to do is submit a digital passport-style photo so they can make an official volunteer badge. This costs 80 rubles, but it is well worth the feeling of self-satisfaction as you stride confidently through the galleries looking professional.
Study abroad students from other countries, schools, and programs also volunteer. The other Americans are usually graduate students working on obscure dissertations in the humanities, CIEE or Bard program students from the prestigious Smolny Institute, or Mormon missionaries on their two-year mission assignment. It’s a pretty interesting context in which to meet new people.
English-speakers are in demand to serve as greeters. Coats and large bags are not allowed in the Hermitage (you quickly learn to memorize this phrase), and guests who don’t know need to be directed to the coatroom. This job can be somewhat stressful on crowded days, when confused Russians or Japanese tourists ask rapid-fire questions about what tours are available and when. My favorite was the Asian guy who demanded to know how long it would take to see “the whole museum.” A commonly-quoted statistic about the Hermitage is that if you spent one minute looking at each of the 2.8 million paintings and artifacts in collection, it would take you something like nine lifetimes. But this man was insistent that he had to see it all in one day (it was already past noon), even if it meant “just walking quickly through each hall,” thus not really seeing anything at all.
Other Hermitage volunteer jobs include working on projects in the archaeology department (entering data into spreadsheets, and sorting, numbering, and photo-documenting artifacts), or editing and translating museum publications. Later this spring, the Hermitage is hosting a conference on Virtual Archaeology, and I am currently charged with editing the roughly translated abstracts into more professional, academic prose. Overall, I am enjoying my experience (even if it is a pain to get all the way downtown and back—one hour each way), and would strongly recommend it to those interested in art or how Russian cultural institutions operate.