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Bridges, Theatres and Architecture: What American Students Like about Saint Petersburg

This autumn students from the United States came to study at HSE University - Saint Petersburg via CIEE to learn more about Russian culture, history, and people. 

Three participants of CIEE programme, Daniel, Josephine, and Samuel, told us about their exchange experience, studying Russian culture, and favourite things about Saint Petersburg.

  • Is it your first exchange experience?

Daniel: ‘I did another exchange back in December, but this year it’s my first exchange experience.'
Josie: ‘It is, yes. It’s my first time abroad.'
Samuel: ‘Yes, this is my first time of being an exchange student.'

  • Why did you decide to study in Russia? 

Daniel: ‘Well, I'm studying history back at my home university and I focus on Eastern Europe. I thought it would probably help with my major and understand the culture and current geopolitics, so I went to the place where I’m studying. I’m trying to learn a bit of the language, a bit of culture, and see it for myself. I feel that what you study from books is different from what you experience in real life.’
Josephine: ‘So, I’m asked that a lot because before I came here I didn’t speak any Russian, but I’m a Political Science student, and I’m interested in relations with other countries and the political relations between Russia and the United States. I also love learning languages, so I wanted to try a new language. Russia seems like a good combination of a new language and somewhere that I wouldn’t have dreamed of going when I was younger. Thus, when I had an opportunity, I thought it would be cool.'
Samuel: ‘Well, my major in the United States is public policy with a focus on Eastern European economics, and Russia is the centre of Eastern Europe. I’ve also been to Serbia, I enjoyed Serbia a lot, and this culture is a bit similar to Russian culture, so I thought it would be fun to go here.'

  • Why did you choose Saint Petersburg?
Daniel: ‘It had a good reputation as being a really beautiful city, it is rich in culture, so I wanted to see it for myself. I also wanted to come here because I feel like there are two main cities in Russia: Saint Petersburg and Moscow. Although it’d been interesting to be in a smaller city, maybe like Saint Petersburg or Kazan, just to get a fuller picture of what Russia is going through and what Russian life is like. As I know, people come to Saint Petersburg from all over the country. I thought being in a bigger city would probably give me a better experience.'
Josephine: ‘Well, one of the reasons is that it was the only programme my school offered in Russia. Now, that I’ve been to Russia and that I’ve been to Moscow, Novgorod, and a couple of other places, I think I would still come back to Saint Petersburg. I love the feeling of this city. It’s big, but you can find places that can make you feel homey. I also like all the people I’ve met, especially the students. We have conversation partners with some Russian students; they have all been great.'
Samuel: ‘Given the history of Saint Petersburg and the architecture, I figured that it would be great to have a chance to get to know this city.'
  • Did you have any expectations before coming to Russia? If yes, what were they?

Daniel: ‘Before coming here, I didn’t have any expectations. I tried to keep an open mind. In terms of what I expected is the weather to be a little colder, for instance. So I was genuinely surprised that in November there wasn’t as much snow yet. I didn’t expect too much because I don’t know many Russian people back home and I knew very little about the food or your day-to-day experiences. I came here like basically a blank page just trying to take it all in after I arrived.’
Josephine: ‘I thought it would be colder, so far I’m okay. One of the things that people told me was that I’m naturally very smiley person, and people were like ‘You have to stop smiling, the Russians aren’t going to like it if you smile. But it hasn’t been the case, and I liked everyone I’ve ever met. I think I had a couple of expectations coming in, but for the most part, I was just kind of open-minded about what was going to happen.'
Samuel: ‘I wanted to learn more about the language, about the culture over here and just engage in a different culture. My expectations have been met. I’m staying with a host family over here, which is great. It helps submerge, and, of course, you automatically submerge into the language while being in Russia.'

  • What do you like the most about living in Saint Petersburg?

Daniel: ‘Well, there are so many things I like in Saint Petersburg. I’m really into a culture, lectures. For me, it’s definitely theatres here, I absolutely love them, like Mariinskiy, Mikhailovskiy. I have visited them plenty of times. I try to go there maybe once a week or two weeks. I just want to make most of it here, it’s been super fun, very eye-opening. Where I’m from back in the US we have a theatre, but it’s not as big as it is in Saint Petersburg. So it just gives you a different perspective of what the creative art scenes are like in different countries and how people project their mass culture which has been pretty interesting to witness.'
Josephine: ‘I’m from a pretty small town in Iowa, I’ve never lived in a city this big. I was a little bit nervous about that, but I like it. I love the metro. I love that I can get anywhere pretty quickly. I also like the food here. I like that in Saint Petersburg, while I can get traditional Russian food at home, I also can go find where to buy a burger or something Chinese. I’m also a big fan of architecture, so I loved all different styles of architecture, palaces, and all of that’.
Samuel: ‘It’s very metropolitan, pretty modern, everything is pretty easy to get to with public transportation. It’s a clean city, and pretty nice people, I have never had any problems with them.'

  • What do you study at your home university and here?

Daniel: ‘Over here I’m right now in the 'Russian Area Studies' programme. We’re studying Russian grammar, Russian conversation. We also have three other electives, so we can choose a variety of different classes. I’m studying 'Russian Civilization', 'Ethnic Studies', and all Russian history from Kievan Rus.'
Josephine: ‘I’m in a double major at home. We call it ‘Government’, but it’s basically ‘Political Science’, and then also ‘Women and Gender Studies’. Here I’m taking political classes, and I’m also taking history, Russian language and civilizations classes. It’s about the different groups in Russia and how they interact with each other.'
Samuel: ‘I’m currently studying language programmes here. I’m doing 'Russian Politics', 'Russian Civilizations', and 'Ethnic Studies', and back in my university, it’s mostly public policy classes, economics-focused classes.' 

  • What do you like about being an HSE student? 

Daniel: ‘I think it’s a great location, Sennaya Ploschad’ is really close. It’s great that you can walk there and just see the stores and restaurants. I guess that I do enjoy the professors at HSE too, they have been great and eye-opening so far.'
Josephine: ‘I like the school itself, the building. I like being able to come and hang out with friends here. I love my professors, all of them have been understanding and have worked with our differences. I like ‘Granola' [the cafe at HSE University - St. Petersburg].
Samuel: ‘I like how modern the university is. The university staff I’ve worked with is professional and polite. I enjoyed all of that. All of my classes have been worked out pretty well, so I can’t complain about anything. And all students are also nice. I had a lot of opportunities to experience that.'

  • In your opinion, will this experience be useful for your future career?

Daniel: ‘Definitely, I’ve met a lot of friends that I hope to meet and be in touch with, like form connections at some stage. I didn’t know any Russian at all prior to this. Although my Russian is still really bad, I hope to continue learning it, and one day I get pretty good and so. I still don’t know what I want to do for my career after I graduate, but I figure something to do with international relations, just something to do with acquiring Russian. I guess being part of it will be pretty interesting and useful to me.'
Josephine: ‘I think it will. It has opened my eyes to try new things, I was a little bit nervous coming here, but the fact that I liked it so much and that I found people here that I vibe with and I like is going to make me want to explore more in the future. And, obviously, a little bit of Russian. Hopefully, I’ll continue studying it when I get home — that’ll help. And being able to understand the different cultures’ perspectives, it’s invaluable.'
Samuel: ‘Oh yes, for sure! I mean, first, it gets me a broader knowledge of Russia itself. I had a chance to network over here, so I can request more information when I’m back in the United States.' 

  • Could you list 5 things that come to your mind when you think about Saint Petersburg? 

Daniel: ‘Okay, let’s say Nevskiy prospect is definitely one, just the entire street in general. Museums are a big thing I’ve noticed in the city. I guess it’s also something relaxing, like being pleasuring, taking a slow pace, walking by the canals, for instance, or just taking the architecture. Fourth thing, I guess, would be the food. The restaurants here are really good, particularly the Georgian restaurants, they are brilliant. The fifth thing would be the people. I still can’t define what the people of Saint Petersburg are like. I think it’s diverse, and it’s just a variety of different people. There is a particular attitude, atmosphere, that’s very unique. I like it so far, it’s been great.’
Josephine: ‘Well, bridges, I love the bridges. I think it's also palaces. Music, I love all the music on the streets. That’s not a huge thing in the US, we have one or two people performing, but I love big bands outside on Nevsky prospect. Then, probably, Nevsky prospect. And pastries! There’s always pastries all the time, I love it!’
Samuel: ‘Obviously that’ll be the architecture, it’s beautiful in and of itself. Just the history of the city is great, the people are great, culture is great, and the last one — just being over here in Russia is just a fantastic experience. 

CIEE is a nonprofit study abroad organization that provides a wide range of intercultural exchange opportunities. Founded in 1947 in the United States, it helps people develop intercultural skills and get an unforgettable experience. CIEE also contributes to a peaceful sustainable international relations development.