Making the Most of Study Abroad Programs
Events at cultural centers offer foreign students a chance to meet Russians and get involved in city life.
Published: September 26, 2012 (Issue # 1728)
While the majority of foreign students leave the city happy, many will experience homesickness and culture shock at first.
Every year, hundreds of foreign students come to St. Petersburg to study Russian. Most of them complete their study programs during the course of several months and leave with an improved knowledge of Russian and, inevitably, a few tales of their adventures in Russia. But every year, there are also students for whom the experience turns out to be something to be endured rather than enjoyed. So what is the recipe for a successful study experience in St. Petersburg, and what are the pitfalls that should be avoided?
The problems that students encounter during study abroad are fairly universal and include homesickness, culture shock, acclimatization to the weather and, of course, the language barrier. Student representatives say that the way in which the home universities prepare their students for these issues can make a difference to how much the students get out of their time here.
Some home universities may limit themselves to briefing students about insurance and life in a homestay (albeit with some very useful information about slippers, table etiquette and how to effectively boil water).
Ingrid Nelson and Courtney Himebrook, two former students of the Council on International Educational Exchange (CIEE) program for U.S. students at St. Petersburg State University, said that while they got a lot out of the CIEE program itself once they were here, they were not adequately prepared by the study abroad departments of their home universities.
“I felt as though I had no idea of what was going to be happening during my time abroad. I didn’t have enough information about what exactly was going on before I left,” Nelson said.
According to Kathryn Alcock, resident director for the American Institute for Foreign Study (AIFS), which has run courses at the St. Petersburg State Polytechnic University for more than 20 years, her students have to be thoroughly prepared before coming to Russia, because for a lot of them, it is the first time they have left the country. She outlines the preparatory steps taken as follows: A pre-departure meeting at the students’ home university, pre-departure information from AIFS and an orientation week upon arrival.
Natalya Rostovtseva, director of the Benedict School language center in St. Petersburg that provides courses for British students studying on the Russian Language Undergraduate Studies (RLUS) programs in St. Petersburg, agreed that lack of preparation by home universities is a common complaint among students.
“Better preparation in their own country would help students,” she said. “For example, two of our students this semester could not cross the border because they thought an invitation was equivalent to a visa.”
Rostovtseva conceived the idea of creating a tailor-made program specifically oriented toward foreigners back in 1992 when she was teaching philosophy at St. Petersburg State University. Before then, foreign students coming to the country to learn the language studied alongside Russians on regular degree programs. With the help of friends and contacts at British universities and her colleagues at the State University, she set up a program designed to meet the needs of British students coming to Russia — a curriculum that included not only language awareness, but also cultural, historical and contemporary features that would help students accomplish more during their short time abroad.
The aim of the program is to “try to create a connection between the language and the cultural environment,” according to Rostovtseva. “We read newspapers with the students, watch TV programs and watch Russian films and get them to discuss what they’ve seen,” she said.
“Language, a professional tool, is not the only benefit of study abroad — a year here also makes you think more broadly, and flexibility and tolerance in our society is a great, great thing.”
On average, approximately 150 British students attend RLUS courses in St. Petersburg every academic year, with about 100 attending the Benedict School and 50 attending RLUS courses at St. Petersburg State University. The numbers for the American programs are smaller, with 25 to 40 students attending AIFS courses any given semester. Hundreds more foreign students study in the city on courses or programs for which they have enrolled individually.
Foreign students can volunteer at animal shelters and with other charities.
SUPPORT FROM AFAR
Student representatives argue that a lack of preparation invariably leads to a need for more support from home universities during the year, and students complain that this support is not always sufficient.
“What support?” said Himebrook. “After the bombing in the Moscow airport, my college’s study abroad office did check to make sure I was alive, but that was the only time I ever heard from the institution while I was there.”
While the services provided by home universities may be enough for most, there are inevitably a few cases every year of students ending up in emergency situations.
“The personal support I received from my university was adequate,” said Hannah Wilson, a student from University College London who completed a RLUS course in the city last year.
“I appreciated the free medical insurance organized for us. However, in the case of one course-mate who suffered a nervous breakdown in the first term, I feel that in future, the home university should bear some responsibility for assessing the psychological well-being of students embarking on trips away to places as remote as Russia.”
According to AIFS’ Alcock and RLUS student representative Sebastian Richardson, the extent of home university involvement in the year abroad experiences of their respective students differs greatly. Alcock said that the universities AIFS works with in the U.S. closely monitor their students’ progress during their year abroad.
“The students’ home universities are in contact with the students quite frequently… I and my colleagues in the AIFS U.S. office in Stamford, Connecticut are also in contact with the students’ study abroad advisors should any questions or concerns arise,” said Alcock. “I also ask the home universities to ‘like’ our Facebook page where they can see the latest news from campus.”
In contrast, British universities tend to take a less hands-on approach, according to Richardson. He cited Manchester as one university that actively tries to support and encourage its students during their year abroad, but said that other universities don’t seem to appreciate the types of problems students can have.
“Manchester is something of a special example because our liaison officer there regularly comes to Russia and has spent time living here, whereas the others haven’t,” he said.
In addition to extensive preparation, study abroad representatives in the city say students can ensure their time in St. Petersburg is a success by finding out about the opportunities available to them — and taking advantage of them. It’s not a question of universities telling students what to do, but more an issue of giving them insight into what they can do, they suggest.
Wilson, who studied Russian on a RLUS course in St. Petersburg on his year abroad from University College London, interned at a local law firm during the summer of his year abroad.
“The greatest progress was made in the summer rather than during the year abroad itself,” he said.
There is certainly no shortage of opportunities for foreign students in the city, and study abroad representatives urge students to recall that St. Petersburg is not limited to the bars on Dumskaya Ulitsa. Social networking sites such as Facebook and vKontakte are full of interest groups that students can join. Charity events and organizations like the Spasibo! Project and Blago.ru are growing by the day and many would be delighted to have the help of native speakers, while offering students a chance to see a different side to the city in exchange.
For those interested in attending lectures and workshops, places like the Loft Project Etagi arts center on Ligovsky Prospekt and the Poryadok Slov bookstore on the Fontanka hold regular meetings and offer students the chance to get involved in contemporary culture with Russians their own age — and practice their Russian outside class.
And best of all for impoverished students, the majority of these cost nothing more than a minimal amount of time and effort.