As I embark on spring travel season this month, I reflect on my first year with SRAS and I am beaming with gratitude. I appreciate all the warm welcomes from Russian faculty and other departments from across the US and my amazing SRAS team.
I worked and lived in Russia in the 1990’s. After moving back to the states, for the next twenty years, I always felt I was trying to find my way home, back to my Russian “дом.” I feel like that finally happened when I officially joined SRAS in January of 2019 as the Director of Institutional Relations.
This summer, I got to travel with SRAS. Another dream come true!
An Introduction to Poland
I started with my first visit to Collegium Civitas in Warsaw, Poland. Highlights were sitting in fascinating lectures and being in the grandiose Place of Culture and Science building where SRAS students study. Stalin “gifted” this building to Warsaw as the Soviets were helping to rebuild it, after the city was almost entirely destroyed during World War II.
It was important to spend time with the Katarzyna Maniszewska, who really focuses on our students’ well-being while on our Security and Society program at Collegium Civitas. Students really appreciate the attention and support she provides.
Warsaw itself was another highlight: such an easy, walkable city. I had read The Zoo Keeper’s Wife, and made it a point of experiencing the zoo, as I knew the story of what happened to it during the war. POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews was also tremendously moving. I am not sure that people understand how much Poland suffered. Nearly 18 percent of Poland’s population died during World War II, including 90 percent of Polish Jews, the largest group of Jews murdered in the Holocaust.
A Russian Homecoming: First stop: Moscow!
I also traveled to Moscow: my favorite city in the world. I spent time visiting our partner universities MGIMO and Higher School of Economics (HSE). I sat in on Russian classes and did the commute from the dorms to our universities to be able to describe the overall experience. Personally, I find the commute to be another layer of learning opportunities. You are forced to interact with Russians and you have to use your Russian. We can get in “American groups” so it is important to get to know the city and its people. You are also looking at everything written in Russian, hearing Russian spoken, and hearing the announcements continuously… “Уважаемые пассажиры, при выходе из поезда не забывайте свои вещи.” You have to think, now what Russian case are they using in that announcement? Ah, genitive when из and не.
I also had the pleasure of spending time with the SRAS Moscow summer students that were studying at HSE. One weekend, we took the local commuter train (electrichka) to Masha’s Dacha, one of SRAS’s flagship cultural events for Moscow students. Masha greeted us warmly and we made borsch and shashlik, painted matryoshka dolls, drank tea and kompot, and of course, played traditional language games and sang and danced to traditional songs.
A Russian Homecoming: On to St. Petersburg!
I then headed to Petersburg via the train! I love traveling on Russian trains and public transport. It is efficient and always an opportunity to speak Russian. Contrary to what most people think, Russians are very kind and open once you start talking to them. The family I met on the train offered me their phone number and said when I come back to Moscow to call and I can come have dinner with them. I tell this story to my students, because if I met someone on a train the US, I might meet them at a coffee shop or restaurant, but certainly I would not invite them to my home. However, I know that they meant it, because that is Russian hospitality, and when I go back this summer, I am calling Ekaterina!
We had many faculty-led (custom) programs running in Saint Petersburg when I was there. This was an opportunity for me to visit with the many diverse students that attend these programs and with the US faculty that lead them.
I also spent a day with our students on our regular Saint Petersburg summer programs. We visited Peterhof and The Siege of Leningrad Memorial with Sergei. Sergei is legendary among our students: a friendly, energetic fount of knowledge. I ate up every word. I would have never found the monument to Mendeleev’s Periodic Table on the side of an apartment an ordinary building had he had not pointed it out. I made sure to do a run to get back to see it close up. In St. Petersburg I also sat in on some of our intensive Russian classes and I lived in the same comfortable, centrally located dorm as our students.
A Great Year Ahead!
As I head into 2020, I am more excited than ever. I am so proud of SRAS programs and what our students experience abroad when they choose to join us in Russia, Ukraine, Kyrgyzstan, and/or Poland. We are proud of our region and work hard to think outside the box to provide our students with a unique experience that will show them the country that the locals know.
I will continue to travel this semester – to visit many of you at your colleges and universities in the US. I am also planning a trip to Kyiv in March to observe our programs there and possibly back to Russia in early June to view more of our programs there. If I have not met you and you would be open to me visiting your campus, I would welcome the opportunity. I will also be at Forum and NAFSA this year, in case we can catch up then.
С Новым годом! До встречи!