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'A Life Changing Experience': US Students Visit St. Petersburg

From January 5 to 20 2018, HSE in St. Petersburg for the second time hosted a special J-Term programme for American students from Smith and Amherst Colleges, as well as the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

The programme, designed especially for the students within the Russian, Eurasian, and Post-Soviet Studies Programme by HSE St. Petersburg, included modules such as, St. Petersburg as a Cultural Capital: History, Politics, Culture taught by Professor Jeanne Kormina, who was named Best Teacher in 2017, The Russian Empire: Sovereignty, Nationalism, and Politics of Diversity taught by the Head of the Department of History, Professor Alexander M. Semyonov, and International Relations: A View from Russia taught by political scientist and Master's programme Business and Politics in Modern Asia director, Sergei Akopov.

The cultural extracurricular programme, supported by ESN Buddies Club, provided the students with the opportunity to discover the city – the Peter and Paul Fortress, the Hermitage Museum, Tsarskoe Selo, the Russian Museum, the Lutheran Church of St. Peter and St. Paul and the St. Nicholas Naval Cathedral. It also gave them an insight into the day-to-day life of the St Petersburgians. Not only did the students see the ballet, ‘The Nutcracker’, and enjoy Tchaikovsky’s beautiful music at the famous Mikhailovski theatre, the young Americans also attended a showing of the 2008 film, ‘Stulyagi’ (Hipsters), directed by Valery Todorovsky and dedicated to the hipsters of the Soviet era who followed the American fashions and trends of the mid 1950s.

As their time in St Petersburg drew to an end, we took the opportunity to ask them about some of the more memorable moments of their trip.

Julia Maria Ortiz, loved exploring the landmarks and most well-known sites of St. Petersburg, from the Church of the Spilled Blood and the Bronze Horseman, to St. Isaac’s Cathedral. 'Expanding my knowledge of Russian culture, history, and language – all while making friends along the way – was a tremendous experience that I would gladly take part in again'.

Marissa and Julia Maria of the Smith's College

Being able to explore the city and learn about it at the same time was crucial for Marisa Mizzoni. 'In many courses, we don’t get to experience firsthand the place we’re learning about. My favorite spot in the city was the Hermitage museum, it was astounding to see some of the world’s most iconic works of art in person. The architecture of the city was truly amazing as well. Each building’s design has its own purpose and hidden meaning'.

Meghan Suslovic, was grateful for the opportunity to learn from Russian professors. 'The professors are clearly at the top of their respective fields and were very capable of answering our many questions. I’m also very appreciate of the Russian buddy club that allowed us to interact with students our own age. I especially enjoyed wandering around the international Christmas fair and trying new foods with them'.

Going to the Lutheran church of St. Peter & Paul was a unique experience for Elizabeth Nagy: 'We approached it as a religious space and a source of Soviet memory. Getting a guided tour and seeing the church in its interiors as a storage space, swimming pool, space of worship, and a community-driven art exhibit... It felt like a personal look into some of St. Petersburg’s past. It also gave the perspective of Germans in Russia during turmoil. Getting beyond a tourists’ view of a place is always my main goal whilst traveling. These courses, specifically this excursion, really helped sink into feeling that we’re getting into knowth of the city, not just dropping in for selfies in some gold-decked museums and places'.

These courses, specifically this excursion, really helped sink into feeling that we’re getting into knowth of the city, not just dropping in for selfies in some gold-decked museums and places

Katherine Bernhardt also had a wonderful time at HSE in St. Petersburg. 'The professors are tremendous and it has been interesting to learn about Russia from a Russian perspective without the bias that typically comes when talking about Russia and the US. Going ice skating was so much fun and the food in the canteen is delicious and the ladies serving the food are so funny. I really enjoyed speaking with two buddies in my hostel one night because I got to see a new side of Russia and learn about how Russians view American culture. Coming at Christmas time, the festive lights adorning the lampposts created a marvelous view and a spectacular experience. I highly recommend HSE for all, regardless of Russian language skills, because I was fine not knowing any. Coming to HSE has been a life changing experience'.

Coming to HSE has been a life changing experience

Lydia De Angelo travelled to Russia not knowing much about its history, culture or language. ‘After taking classes for just two weeks here and meeting other Russian students, I feel like I have gained a new perspective on the country and its people. Having the opportunity to do activities with our Russian buddies and experience their view of St. Petersburg taught me just as much as the formal classes I took. Being in a city with so much history made every day unique and filled with new adventures. One of my favorite moments was climbing  to the top of St. Isaac’s cathedral and seeing the city from above’.

One of my favorite moments was climbing  to the top of St. Isaac’s cathedral and seeing the city from above

Even though the students only attended classes over a short period of time, all the professors were interested in the students' learning and took the time to answer their questions and engage in meaningful conversation, according to Maurer Kathryn. 'One of my favorite memories of my time in St. Petersburg will be when I climbed to the top of St. Isaac’s cathedral with some of my friends. We timed it perfectly so we were able to watch the sunset. And even though it was super cold and windy, it will be something I remember forever'.

The J-Term programme within Winter School 2018 became possible with the support of HSE St. Petersburg's International Office and the academic supervision of Irina Shchemeleva, and Evgeny Dengub, director of the 3 College Russian Initiative (Smith College, UMass Amherst and Mount Holyoke College).