I have a fair amount of experience with study abroad/service learning, both in terms of the actual experience and its attendant bureaucracy. I volunteered in the Ecuadorian Amazon for two summers in high school, doing construction work and practicing Spanish. I have lived, researched, worked on an archaeology dig, and traveled throughout the Republic of Georgia for two summers in undergrad. I served as a work-study secretarial assistant for almost three years at my home university’s Office of International Programs. Most recently, I have almost completed a semester abroad in Russia.
I chose to preface this post with a mini-CV to make it clear that I am not just running my mouth based on a few months of lazy observations. After several years of both working with study abroad students and being one, I think I am qualified enough to make a few statements about the right and wrong reasons to study abroad in St. Petersburg.
These are the right reasons to study abroad in Russia:
–You are dedicated to learning Russian (which, it should be mentioned, is a widely spoken language also valued by the US Dept. of State, so it’s not like Swedish or Tagalog or something). Whether it’s for your career, your family, or an academic research interest, you are motivated to do what you have to in order to make the most of an immersion environment.
–You are dedicated to learning about Russian politics, history, contemporary society, art, culture, religion, etc. Once again, this may be a career or a personal choice, but either way you already know a fair amount about some things but are interested in expanding your knowledge about the country.
–You want to experience a different way of life. You understand the inevitable costs, inconveniences, and cold weather, but are willing to tolerate all that for a few months with the knowledge that the memories and learning experiences will be worth it for you.
These are the wrong reasons to study abroad in Russia:
–You want to get away from your home university. First of all, you will never really get away from it, as you’ll have to continually fill out paperwork, communicate with home professors, and sign up for courses for when you get back. Going abroad is just a temporary fix. Students who do this tend to be completely unprepared when they get here, because they usually chose their study abroad program arbitrarily. It’s hard to make the most of your study abroad semester(s) when you have no idea what’s going on or why specifically you are in this location.
–You want to visit a lot of nearby countries during your breaks. St. Petersburg is actually in a really terrible location for travel. Unlike in Western Europe, where you can book a $40 Ryanair flight to another country for the weekend, the least expensive flights from St. Petersburg to nearby cities (Copenhagen, Stockholm, Riga, Tallinn, Kiev) are $180-300. Any city within reasonable price range is also not going to be that much different in terms of climate, either, if you think you’ll want to escape to the beach at some point. The easily-reachable North European cities, like Helsinki, Copenhagen, Oslo, and Stockholm also have reputations for being notoriously expensive. Kiev, Tallinn, Prague, and Bucharest are the best options if you want to save money. Students with bigger airfare budgets have also traveled to Greece, Turkey, and Egypt.
–You are a hipster and want to go where no other students are going in order to escape “American tourists” for an “authentic experience;” plus you want to be able to have real Soviet souvenirs. While Russia may seem like hipster heaven on the surface (given the sheer abundance of irony and cigarettes), you will hit a lot of roadblocks. Russians will not buy that you are poor-ish. Internet is not widespread. Clothing in St. Petersburg is expensive, and they don’t have Salvation Army. Record players are not a symbol of prestige. Russians will not like it when you drunkenly declare that you essentially love their country because it is amusingly “backwards.”
–Your boyfriend/girlfriend decided to study abroad in Russia this semester. You can’t handle long distance, see this as an extended couple’s vacation, and don’t care that you have little to no actual interest in the country. Unfortunately this happens. A lot. It is not fun for anyone involved. You also run the risk of not learning very much, as you will undoubtedly spend a lot of time with your significant other, speaking English. If their language skills are more advanced than yours, you may also become dependent on them to speak for you in public—ordering at restaurants, buying metro passes, etc.–all the little things that make up an engaging study abroad experience.