4 Reasons Studying Abroad is One of the Best Investments You Can Make

When telling people about my undergraduate experience, I always cite my time in Russia as the absolute highlight of my college career. Not only was living in another culture filled with daily adventures and exciting experiences, but it led to personal and professional growth that I might not have obtained had I stayed inside the cozy walls of my quaint New England college. My experiences is Russia have convinced me that stepping out of your comfort zone and into another culture has the ability to drastically impact your perspective, character, and career, and I am passionate about promoting studying abroad as one of the best investments you can make in your four years at college. In an ideal world, I would love to sit across from you with a cup of hot tea and answer all your questions, but since that’s not possible, I’ll try my best to give you a taste of the excitement that awaits you with four reasons that studying abroad was the best decision I made in college:

1. Adventure

I am unashamedly addicted to adventure. Being transplanted to a new place immediately heightens your senses, and things that you wouldn’t have noticed in your home country evoke a sense of awe. From trying exotic cuisine to dancing in traditional Russian dress, every day offered me the chance to do something I could only read about in America.

Performing a Russian folk dance in Nizhniy Novgorod, 2010

cropped-100_1630.jpg The Church Pokrova Na Nerli, one of my favorite places to explore, Bogolyubova, 2012

Not only does a new environment inspire a fresh perspective, but you are challenged to change your approach to bumps in the road.  G.K. Chesterson said that,  “An adventure is only an inconvenience rightly considered. An inconvenience is an adventure wrongly considered,” and studying abroad has taught me to embrace this philosophy wholeheartedly. While abroad, I have gotten on the wrong plane, gotten stitches from a crazy Russian dentist, and almost overstayed my visa, but with each progressive situation, I have learned to approach “inconveniences” with a sense of adventure, openness, and flexibility.

Getting Ready for Stitches after an Accident on the Ice

2. Language Learning

I am a little biased toward this reason, since one of the main reasons I studied in Russia is because I am in love with the language.  Although a semester will not automatically make you fluent, being immersed in the language is one of the best and fastest ways to increase your proficiency.  After my eight weeks in Vladimir, Russia, through the CLS Program, I crossed a threshold on the ACTFL Scale. Being immersed in the language also taught me about setting realistic and measurable goals in both language learning and personal development, which is a skill that continues to carry over into many other parts of my life.

3. Relationships

Some of the best friends I have made, both American and Russian, I have met abroad. If you are traveling with a group of Americans, it is refreshing to find people who have similar interests as you. Instead of getting a quizzical stare when I would try to explain my love for Russia, conversations about Russian literature, language and cultural faux pas would flow naturally.

A collage of fun times with my friends from Vladimir in 2012
A collage of fun times with my friends from Vladimir in 2012

In my cross-cultural relationships, I also gained a different dimension to my definition of friendship. In Russia, friendship carries a much more serious connotation than it does in America, so to be considered a Russian’s friend is a great honor. Learning how to navigate cross-cultural relationships is one of the most difficult, but most rewarding parts of studying abroad, and the depth and warmth of Russians is one of the main reasons that I keep going back.

4. Professional Development

I am convinced that no matter what question I get in a job interview, I will be able to answer with a story or situation from my time abroad. “How do you work with personalities different than your own?” I can cite numerous examples of interacting with Russians.  “How do you adapt to unexpected situations?” I can talk about the time my group was stranded in Moscow or I got lost in the middle of Southern Russia. “Tell me about your track record with setting goals and achieving them.” I can talk about my perseverance in studying the language.  Studying abroad was filled with so many real life situations which were magnified by the cross-cultural tension, and I know that these concrete examples represent growth and life skills that I might not have obtained had I stuck to writing research papers and making my biggest adventure a trip to Boston on a Saturday night.

Are you convinced yet? Still have more questions? Wherever you’re at concerning the possibilities of studying abroad, the best place to find answers is from people who have gotten the experience themselves. This is why I am so excited about the Institute for International Education’s new book, A Student Guide to Study Abroad. I was privileged to be interviewed by one of the authors, Stacie Nevadomski Berdan, about my experiences studying through the Critical Language Scholarship. My friend Cody, who has studied in Russia and Bahrain and has traveled to South America and Africa, is also quoted in the book.

A Student Guide to Study Abroad

The book is filled with practical advice from students who have studied abroad on choosing a program that fits your strengths and needs, preparing for your time abroad, and making the most of your cross-cultural experience.  I think it will be an excellent resource for any prospective globetrotters. My copy is in the mail right now and I can’t wait to read it! Read excerpts from the book and pre-order here!


What Language Learning is Really Like

“Just go live in the country for a few months; you’ll come back fluent for sure.”

“You just have to immerse yourself in the language. Once you hear it spoken, you’ll pick it up and be speaking in no time.”

Comments like these to the aspiring language learner are well-meant, but, as I’ve learned, are not completely accurate. Before my first semester studying abroad in Russia, I heard countless variations of these words from friends and family. I had already learned the basics: the Russian case system, basic verbs of motion, and commonly-used vocabulary. Filled with enthusiasm and hopeful naivete, I believed them. I closed my eyes and pictured myself rattling off perfect Russian, spiced with apt jokes and subtle puns. And I pictured myself doing this after only three months.

Let’s just say that the reality of language learning did not live up to my expectations. When I arrived in St. Petersburg, I realized I could not understand the majority of what people were saying. When I tried to order my food in Russian at a Pizza Hut, the waitress ignored me until I spoke in English. When I arrived in Nizhniy Novgorod a few weeks later to begin my studies, I made it my goal to take every opportunity I could to speak with Russians, hoping the magical “immersion pill” would start to kick in.

Throughout my three and a half months abroad, I immersed myself as best as I could, going on long walks with Russians, chatting with my host family over late night chai, and pouring myself into my three hours a day of Russian class. Without a doubt, I enjoyed all these experiences immensely, but almost every day, I would beat myself up about my “slow” progress. Instead of celebrating learning a new word, I would chastise myself for not yet achieving this glimmering “fluency” that I so idolized. By the end of the trip, I am sure that I did improve both in comprehension and in speaking. But because I had held so tightly to comments like “just live there for a few months and you’ll be fluent,” I felt that I had failed. After all, from what people said, I should be fluent by now. I should be able to effortlessly translate the sentence that Russian spy said in Get Smart. I certainly shouldn’t be making these stupid mistakes anymore and stuttering through simple sentences!

You would think I would have learned that I was creating overly high expectations for myself, but I entered the Critical Language Scholarship Program last summer with much of the same attitude. Again, although I improved quite a bit, my unreachable expectations made me think that I had failed.

After returning, every time someone asked me, “So, are you fluent now?” made me want to scream and throw everything in the vicinity like a madwoman. I would disguise my frustration with a saccharine smile, answer with a gentle, “well, conversationally fluent, but I still make a lot of grammatical mistakes and there are many topics I don’t know the vocabulary for.” When I left the conversation, I would beat myself up again, thinking “you are supposed to be fluent by now!” One of the biggest mistakes I have made time and time again in my language-learning journey is to expect too much improvement in too little time. Immersion is important, but time is just as important!

Now I see that my reaction should not have been dismay, but rather an excited “Wow, I can communicate with Russians on a number of topics, isn’t that cool! I still have a lot to improve on, but I’ve come pretty far!”

As I embark on my next trip to Russia, I want to throw out unreachable, pie-in-the sky expectations of speaking Russian like a native speaker effortlessly and without a mistake. It’s not because I’ve lowered my standards. No, I still hope to attain a much higher level of proficiency…in time. But for now, perhaps the best expectations I can make for myself are small and measurable, like “learn x number of new words a week,” and “discuss x with three Russians.” Slowly but surely, I will improve. But I want to enjoy the journey and not get overly caught up in the seemingly asymptotic destination.


Your Tongue Will Get You All the Way to Kiev

Язык до Киева доведет. Your tongue will get you all the way to Kiev. My RD in Vladimir last summer shared this proverb with us to remind us of the power of using our voice. For many people, this little epigram is simple to carry out, but no matter how badly I desire boldness, assertiveness eludes me like the Roadrunner outruns Wile E. Coyote. It is embarrassing to admit, but despite my many times abroad, I cringe at the thought of approaching ticket counters. In reality, no one cares other than me if I make a fool of myself, but I still carry around the inflated image of scowling matrons and customs officers disgusted by the incompetence of stupid American girls. This image has stopped me many times from using my voice. On top of this my reticence to approach the ominous “other,” I rarely travel alone, so I have gotten into the bad habit of defaulting to the eagle-eyed directional skills of my friends.

When it comes to travel, I am a follower.

When it comes to travel, I am too timid.

Not wanting to impose upon the very people whose job it is to be imposed upon, I walk around terminals and train stations with unsure steps, hoping and praying that I actually board the right plane or train.

You’d think I would have learned by now that timidity in traveling is a vice that needs to be vigorously fought; after all, it was not asking questions that once landed me in the wrong airport without money or a phone. But still, no matter how badly I want to be assertive, no matter how many times I try to reframe the situation with psychological tricks, it still takes everything inside me to confidently state my question or concern to an unsmiling stranger. Add to this a language barrier, and the fear level spikes. I will never forget the adrenaline-filled trepidation that overwhelmed me as I approached the ticket counter to buy my first train ticket in Russia. Of course, it wasn’t as scary as I had imagined, but still, when I successfully bought the ticket to where I needed to go, I felt as victorious as if I had won a marathon, and almost as exhausted.

Now that I’m going to be doing extensive independent travel in my year abroad, I realize that putting so much emotional energy into such an everyday task will be exhausting. I’m going to need a lot more смелость (boldness) if I’m going to thrive in the rigors of the Russian travel system. So as a “warm-up,” I decided to take a trip down to Boston this week. It was my roommate from Gordon’s 22nd birthday, and I thought it would be fun to surprise her. All that stood between me and our reunion was a bus, a few subway rides, and a commuter rail. And I feel a little funny saying it, but I was scared. I was scared, but I couldn’t let that fear cripple me. I had to exercise my tongue. And as is often the case, things went much more smoothly than I had imagined in my worst-case scenario addicted brain. I almost got lost a few times, but I used my tongue when I needed to. And today, as I strode through the bustle of the Boston South Station, my steps were imbued with a purposeful bounce. The familiar traveling smells of coffee and cigarette smoke and city air brought back broad memories of trekking through Moscow and St. Petersburg, and at once I was confident, able, смелая. Язык до киева доведет; my tongue will get me all the way to Kiev, but first I had to let it get me as far as Boston.

A Student Guide to Study Abroad

I was privileged to be interviewed about my experiences in the Critical Language Scholarship Program and quoted in Stacie Nevadomski Berdan’s new book, A Student Guide to Study Abroad. It looks like it will be a excellent resource for any prospective globetrotters! More information can be found at:


A Taste of Russia

Gordon College doesn’t offer Russian, so when I received a grant to promote Russian language study at my school, I was elated. As many of you know, Russian language is one of my greatest passions, and I will jump at any opportunity to share my excitement with others. The Critical Language Scholarship, the program through which I studied in Vladimir, Russia, offers small grants to alumni to further pursue their critical language of choice. They agreed with me that promoting Russian at Gordon would be a great idea, so I set out to create an evening that would give students just a little taste of the country and language that I have fallen in love with.

I was pleasantly surprised to have 16 attendees, two of which were professors. We began the evening by diving into the Cyrillic alphabet. I learned Cyrillic about ten years ago, so I was unsure as to how much time people would need to get the hang of it. In a few minutes though, students were reading cognates like “шоколад” (shokolad) and “президент” (presidyent) and writing their names in the Russian script!

After they had gotten the hang of Cyrillic, students split up into groups and practiced simple greetings. This was definitely fun, but my favorite part of the evening was teaching a favorite Russian folk song,”Миленький ты мой” (My Darling). This song is a conversation between a man and a woman, with the woman trying to convince the man to take her with him. She firsts asks to be his wife, to which he replies that he already has a wife; next, she revises her proposal and says that she will be his sister, but he tells her he already has a sister. Finally, she demotes herself to being a stranger, as long as it means going with him, but alas, he has no need of a stranger. This seems to be a dismal ending for our young woman, but our folklore teacher in Vladimir taught us the “Хулиганский вариант,” (The Hooligan Version), in which the girl sings “Миленький ты мой, ну и чёрт с тобой! Там в краю далёком, есть у меня другой.” This translates roughly to “My darling, go to hell! Where you’re going I already have someone else.” So yes, Russian folk music has boasted Taylor Swift renditions before Taylor Swift’s grandparents were even thought up.
We ended the night by feasting upon a spread of delicious Russian cuisine. Included in our meal were блины и одадьи (thin and thick pancakes), варенье из чёрной смородины (black currant jam), сырники (pancakes made from farmer’s cheese), хлеб с колбасой и сыром (bread with kielbasa and cheese), шоколад (chocolate), пряники (gingerbread), и чай (tea).
The evening was wonderful, and I am so thankful to have had the chance to share my love for Russia with those at my school. It was a joy to interact other Gordon students who are interested in Russia that I might not have met otherwise. Yes, the evening was wonderful, but definitely not enough to satisfy my appetite for all things Russian. It is my hope that by this time next year, I won’t be ordering Russian food online, but taking a маршрутка (taxi-bus) to the магазин (store) to buy my beloved творог (farmer’s cheese) and свежий хлеб (fresh bread).
This blog does not necessarily represent the views of the CLS Program, the Department of State, or American Councils.

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