Experiencing Russia: learning beyond textbooks

Not many students can say they’ve taken a trip in Russia from Moscow to St. Petersburg on the very train under which Anna Karenina threw herself. Nor can many say they’ve taken part in a demonstration in Moscow during a time of political upheaval.

But now, thanks to a plethora of study-abroad options afforded to college students, almost anyone at the U can spend several weeks in Russia, using the country itself as a textbook.

“Study abroad is not about academic, textbook lecture learning, but learning through experience, being on the site, seeing impressive artworks, seeing Russia as a whole [and] also being able to partake in sounds and smells,” said Aaron Rose, coordinator for the Study Abroad and Exchanges International Center.

The Study Abroad program to Russia is designed as a two week study of Russian culture, literature and art in Moscow and St. Petersburg.

“In St. Petersburg, the city itself is a study in classical 18th- and 19th-century architecture…where Dostoevsky, Tchaikovsky and others are buried,” said the program’s director, Gene Fitzgerald.

“The thing that makes this program unique is that it is a traveling program. This is not a language-learning program. Lectures regarding history, culture and the arts will be in English,” Rose said.

However, the program is not all about sightseeing.

Fitzgerald-who has studied in, lived in and taken many previous study-abroad trips to Russia-points out the changes student experienced during past trips.

“Students were profoundly changed by the experience, particularly as concerns a sort of spiritual essence that Russia seems to embody, even in Soviet times,” he said.

Fitzgerald witnessed the students’ encounters with the Russian way of “meeting and living life as it comes without lots of complaints, and certainly without the material benefits that we enjoy.”

“There was always a more profound view of the world [in Russia] that didn’t consider material well-being to be the most important aspect of life. I think that profoundly influenced the students,” he said.

Rose also hopes that students will take this trip as a chance to broaden their horizons and ask questions like, “What does it mean culturally to be in Russia? What does it mean to be a Russian today? What does it mean to be an American in Russia today?”

“This program is really cool. Going into a former Soviet country would be interesting. It has an incredibly romantic feel, I think, to go to Russia or to take the night train to Moscow from St. Petersburg. It is almost like a Doctor Zhivago adventure,” Rose said.

“It is also exciting to go with Gene Fitzgerald, who knows so much about Russian culture, and just listening to his stories is rather inspiring and exciting. It helps reinforce that romantic appeal, but he is also ready to discuss the realistic aspects of what Russia is. He’s going to be a very nice personal touch, a guide for our group,” Rose said.

Students interested in participating should inquire at the Study Abroad Center in the Union. “We’re looking to have about 15 to 20 participants. It is a little bit smaller than other trips, but a nice size-just enough people to establish a sense of community,” Rose said.

Financial help is available and students may earn up to three hours of credit in Russian Culture 4900.

“It is a profoundly moving experience. I’m always surprised at how affected students and others are by the trip itself. Once you’ve been to Russia, you almost always yearn to go back,” Fitzgerald said.

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