Tell us about your summer learning experience in Russia.
CIEE is a private study abroad agency geared towards upper-division undergraduate students. Typically, students apply through their host institution. For me, it was easier to just apply directly. CIEE’s Russian Area Studies program was one of the few programs I found in Saint Petersburg that didn’t have language prerequisites, so I was able to participate. I liked the program emphasis on culture through coursework, educational field trips and a four-week homestay with a host family. I also liked that they offered an optional Russian language “survival” class.
What were your personal goals in participating in this activity?
My main goal was to enhance my cultural sensitivity/ability to serve Russian and Russian-speaking older adult communities. This will be an ongoing journey. I hope that my efforts to focus on Russian history, cultural context and language will help me more meaningfully engage and support clients.
Can you please describe the steps you took to find and identify the project?
My decision to study in Russia, and in particular Saint Petersburg, was informed by years of work with Russian-speaking Jewish communities in San Francisco. I’ve been particularly moved by narratives about life in Saint Petersburg during the Siege— the horrors and also the resilience—and I’m curious about how this impacts people in their later years, along with next generations. Saint Petersburg is a world heritage site and a great place to learn about local, national and international history. It’s also considered to be one of the best cities in Russia for learning the language.
How have your summer experiences in Russia informed your future professional plans?
My experiences in Russia this summer invigorated my sense of curiosity and adventure, which I think is critical in social work. While I dream of speaking Russian fluently, I know I have to manage my expectations. I’m having a lot of trouble with intonation, which is extremely important in the Russian language. It was humbling and, at times, really daunting to have such a language barrier. I struggled to read signs/instructions and made a fool of myself daily. I’ve been thinking a lot about what it might be like for people who immigrate to a new country. The stressors and hurdles are beyond compare and of course depend on person/context. I do think I got a tiny bite-sized taste of some of the challenges/considerations.
How did you manage logistics in Russia, such as housing and transportation?
A lot of logistical issues came up before I even arrived in Russia. It’s a time-consuming process to figure out a budget, apply for funding, get a visa, book travel, etc. I solicited help from both CIEE and the School of Social Welfare, which made things easier.
I lived with a host mother in the Soviet-style housing blocks, and I can’t say enough good things about this experience. It was deeply enriching to forge a bond with my host mother, to eat meals with her daily and to practice English and Russian languages together. Public transportation in Saint Petersburg is a topic all to itself— a nice intersection of my interests in accessibility (physical and financial), preventing social isolation in older adults, urban policy planning and the environment.
Saint Petersburg is a massive city, so getting places was always an adventure and often a physical workout. I walked a lot. I even had the opportunity to do some cycling, but I would not recommend this to others unless they’re already confident riders and accompanied by someone local. Saint Petersburg is not adequately accessible for people with physical disabilities and for frail elderly individuals, which is a major injustice.
What lessons can be learned from your experiences to help improve the processes for future summer program participants?
I would recommend that students start researching summer programs in advance of the deadline, even if they are unsure of their funding. I came across quite a few programs with applications in late fall/early winter. I committed a lot of time and legwork to this process without knowing for sure if I would receive the support necessary for me to make this trip a reality. It would have been helpful for me to understand the specific criteria/decisionmaking processes for funding as far in advance as possible. It might also be helpful to have a School of Social Welfare database for students to rate their international experiences, similar to our field placement binders/database.
For anyone considering the CIEE Saint Petersburg Russian Area Studies, I recommend supplementing the program/making it as much your own as possible. Some of the most meaningful learning experiences I had during the trip were when I strayed from the group and followed my own interests. For example, I found a public agency that serves older adults and got to spend a day teaching English to various groups. The process of locating and connecting with this agency was not easy, but educational in its own right.
I really appreciated Berkeley Social Welfare's flexibility with my learning goals. Once in Saint Petersburg, I forged friendships with people that live in the city—a learning experience/bridge that can’t really be measured or planned ahead of time.
Also, I hope that both the School and future students consider the value of spontaneous/bonus opportunities that can’t always be planned in advance. On my way back to the Bay Area from Saint Petersburg, I had the chance to visit a Dutch intergenerational care home in Deventer, where students live for free in exchange for volunteering. Just a few days with this community left me with rich material to bring back to the classroom and the field.