Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Russia: St. Petersburg

Kyiv, Ukraine
Ana Frigo ‘14

What is your major?

I'm majoring in International Affairs with a minor in Russian language.

Why did you decide to study abroad?

I decided a long time ago that I wanted to study abroad.  I was a figure skater for 13 years, and many of my coaches and friends were foreign (many of my coaches in particular spoke Russian). Studying abroad was an opportunity to connect with other people and have a better understanding of how the rest of the world thinks and views the United States.

Why did you choose St. Petersburg, Russia?

I've always had a strong interest and connection to Russia, especially Moscow. When choosing between St. Petersburg and Vladivostok, I decided that I wanted to be closer to Moscow and the rest of Europe for traveling purposes. I always knew that St. Petersburg is one of the most beautiful cities in Europe- and probably the world, with a lot of culture and history behind it, and I wanted to spend time there and learn more about it.

Dinner with my host family.
What was your living situation like?

All the American students were placed in families at the beginning of the program in order to integrate us more into society and have a better chance of practicing the language. I absolutely loved my host family and the location of the apartment.  I lived on Vasilevsky Island, about 15 minutes walking to the famous Hermitage Museum. In addition to my host mom, I had a host brother and a wonderful cat named Marcel. The apartment itself had 3 rooms for each of us, a toilet, shower, and the kitchen. Overall, it was very cozy, and it gave me an opportunity to really view the city from a local perspective. 

Highlights/challenges of the program.

Smolny Institute
The most obvious challenge I think many people faced was culture shock. It was difficult hitting the ground and realizing that you are no longer in your comfort zone.  For a while it was difficult to understand the Russian perspective of life, but after a while, you learn to understand and appreciate the things that the people and country have been through.  The biggest highlights were of course going on excursions, meeting new friends, seeing all the museums, and studying in an absolutely beautiful university. However, in the end the biggest realization I had was that all people are fundamentally the same, but are separated by language and culture. This is common sense when you think about it, but experiencing it for yourself is life-changing and helps you see the world in a completely different way.

Advice you wish you had been given before going on your program.

Relax. I wish more people told me to relax and just go with the flow of things.  We had a good number of meetings and information sessions where we learned what to do/not do, but the most useful thing I learned was that the experience of being abroad is much more enjoyable when you're not stressing over every little thing that you're not used to.

Additional comments?
I really recommend that anyone going abroad should keep a positive attitude and participate in all the events/excursions the program sets up. You are only abroad in this type of setting once, and you should take complete advantage of it!

 If you have questions about the St. Petersburg Program, you can find program alums on the Ask An Alum Moodle page by clicking this link. 

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

France: Strasbourg

A fountain in the Jardin de Luxembourg, in Paris
Eve Ben Ezra ‘12
What is your major?

Why did you decide to study abroad?
I wanted to experience life in another country and culture. As much as you can read about different cultures in books or online, nothing really compares to immersing yourself in it. I also wanted to have a better grasp of the French language.

Why did you choose Strasbourg?
The Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris

I thought a lot about whether I should choose Strasbourg or Nancy (the other France program). In the end, I decided on Strasbourg for several reasons. One, it's an old city with so much history and culture behind it. Strasbourg is, of course, in France, but Alsace (the region) has switched back and forth between France and Germany many times, and the culture, the buildings, and the history reflects that. Additionally, although the city isn't huge and I can walk everywhere I want, I've never been bored and I've never run out of places to explore. Strasbourg is also the seat of the European Parliament, and so as a member of the program I got to go on tours of the Counsel of Europe and the Parliament.

What was your living situation like?
I lived in a tiny cramped apartment in the middle of the city with a kind woman in her 30s. When I say tiny cramped apartment, I mean it. There were really two rooms and a bathroom. I lived upstairs in a sort of lofted bedroom area, and downstairs was the kitchen which also functioned as the living room and where my host mother slept. Despite the close quarters, I never felt smothered and I never felt like I didn't have enough privacy. The location made up for it. I lived in the middle of the city, literally a block away from the Cathédrale de Notre-Dame de Strasbourg. It was a 20 minute walk from campus, and probably a 10 minute walk to any of the places my friends ever wanted to meet up. 

Highlights and challenges.
A street draped in holiday lights for the Marché de Noël, 
which brings in 2 million tourists annually.
There were a lot of highlights and challenges on this program. Some of the biggest challenges I faced were culture shock challenges. The French way of life (such as no one ever smiling or making eye contact with you) as well as being expected to show up somewhere five minutes late as opposed to five minutes early was taxing on me. I definitely faced some frustrations, especially with my language learning. For a long time I felt like I wasn't learning anything, or that I was a failure, or that I would never make any friends. But all of those things came with time, and they were all highlights. I'd say that my personal highlights were finally realizing how much progress I had made, and how every conversation I successfully have in French is a huge accomplishment and something to be really proud of. As for other highlights: I got to intern in a French bakery, where I met young French people who then became my friends and invited me out with them, and I got to travel a lot, with and without the group. The LCCF (Lewis & Clark College in France) group all went to Paris for the Toussaint vacation in November. Additionally, we got to go to the Château de Haut-Kœnigsbourg, a huge castle that also has traces of being both French & German, and had a great view looking out over the Alsatian plain. But I'd say that the biggest highlight is how close I became to everyone else in my group. In the four months I was in France, I really depended on the support of my friends, and gave them support as well. It was a huge highlight knowing that I was never alone, and that I've made friendships and memories that will last the rest of my life. I also got to meet Matthew Lewis in London, so that was awesome.

Advice you wish you were given before you went on your program.
A picture from my bedroom window of Strasbourg in the Snow
I wish I would have been told some of the bigger differences between France and the USA. Well, not bigger differences. I guess I would have been told the teeny-tiny differences that bother you. Such as: there are no index cards, you NEVER challenge your professors, you don't smile or make eye contact with strangers unless you want them to consider you 'simple', and the paper is a tiny bit longer than in the US. Don't be picky about food, you will try a lot of new and seemingly weird things and they will all of them be delicious. Eat at the green place (called Fournil) across from the University, they have the best sandwiches. Bring some emergency money and have a way to get money to you if your bank decides to go nutty. At the beginning of the program it took a week and some change to get my French bank account set up (all foreign accounts have to be approved in Paris) and in the meantime my American bank decided that I was obviously a thief and so cancelled my card and wouldn't reinstate it unless I personally went into a branch, which was impossible. Lastly, it should be known that things in France take a long time. A long time. Which can be good and bad. Don't go to the super market if you only have five minutes (it will take 20).

Additional comments?
 Keep an open mind, and don't be too offended if someone yells at you, it's just their nature! Also, the Strasbourg program is the best, and you should go on it. If you go to Paris, make sure to go to the Marché des enfants rouges!

If you have questions about the Osaka Program, you can find program alums on the Ask An Alum Moodle page by clicking this link.