Kristin Alexy ’13, a German and international studies major with minors in Russian and Eastern European Studies and politics recently shared her experience of spending a semester abroad in Russia.
Why did you want to study abroad?
In today’s global world, it is important to understand other cultures, especially those of the rising world powers. Equally vital is to speak foreign languages, because contrary to the popular American belief, everyone in the world does not speak perfect English. Communication is our most valuable tool to develop, but in order to grasp a firm understanding of a different culture and language I knew I had to study abroad.
Why did you choose Russia?
I have always been fascinated with Russian history and Russia is an important country for an International Studies major and Politics minor. I took two Russian and Eastern European Studies (RES) courses at Fairfield, “Intro to Russian History and Culture” and “The History and Culture of Central and Eastern Europe since 1945,” which inspired me to become a Russian and Eastern European Studies minor and to begin the exciting adventure to learn the language. Russian courses at Fairfield have Oral Practice Sessions (OPS) and Russian Hour cultural presentations on a weekly basis, which helped me greatly in my studies outside of class. After one year of Russian, I realized quickly that to learn the language, I needed to be in an environment where I was constantly using it outside the classroom such as at the Russian Hour sessions. My one year of Russian classes at Fairfield prepared me both linguistically and culturally to become integrated into Russian society and to succeed in the intensive three hours of Russian per day in the classroom.
What was a stand out experience of your time in Russia?
St. Petersburg was an imperial city, so I was constantly discovering new and beautiful palaces along my way, so it is hard to pinpoint one thing. One of my dreams as a child studying ballet though was to see the theater that so many of my heroes danced upon. It was a magical moment seeing “The Nutcracker” at the Mariinsky Theater. St. Petersburg also houses a National Circus that lets you take pictures with some of the animals that perform including kangaroos, snakes, and bears!
One of the most amazing experiences was being invited to my host family’s dacha (summer cottage), which is a very important aspect of Russian culture. I felt welcomed into their culture, but more importantly I began to understand unique aspects of Russian culture I once overlooked or did not appreciate, such as the naming system. Every Russian name has a set nickname, but also an endearing form of the name. At Fairfield I decided to be called by my middle name, Maria, so I was Masha. One day my host mother called me Mashenka, which is like saying sweetie. I became so excited, because it meant that she saw me as part of her family and trusted me, something that is rather special in Russian culture. Also I realized that Russians place deep value in traditions passed over generations like serving tea in a samovar and learning to pick mushrooms. I even got to go mushroom picking with my host parents in a forest of birch trees. I felt like I was in a Russian fairytale and would find Baba Yaga’s house!
How did you language skills improve?
What would have taken me a year to accomplish in a classroom, I was able to do in less than one semester. Personally reading in Cyrillic was very difficult for me, but it became a natural process abroad. I became very excited when I realized that I was no longer constantly translating in my head what people were saying to me or thinking first in English before I would respond; it became a natural process to understand and speak Russian. My greatest accomplishment was giving a native Russian directions to the nearest metro station and that she understood me perfectly!
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