Pulling Back the Curtain

Pulling Back the Curtain

Kathleen Holden, College of CharlestonRussia holds an interesting place in the American imagination – a country viewed suspiciously by many through the lens of Cold War rivalries. One student put her graduation on hold in order to learn more about this world and better understand its differences and its commonalities.

by Kathleen Holden ’15

I came to the College knowing one thing: I was not going to take Spanish for my language requirement. Not ever. I took Spanish for three years in high school and still can’t even ask where the bathroom is.

Luckily, I had plenty of choices here, including Hindi and Russian. I have always had an interest in Russia; something about how big and far away it is always intrigued me. So, my first semester, I took Professor Oksana Ingle’s course, Window Into Russia, and fell in love with the Russian people and their culture. Coincidently, I found a language requirement that wasn’t Spanish! After completing Oksana’s course, I declared my Russian studies minor, which wound up fitting perfectly with my anthropology major. From there, I began focusing solely on those two areas of study.

I started my final year of college last fall, when Oksana was promoting her Maymester in Russia to all the department’s classes. I don’t think she was having very much success; a lot of people were afraid to go or didn’t want to spend the money to go “somewhere so cold.” At first, I didn’t even consider going. I was on track to graduate in May and was thinking about a million other things. However, one day I ran into Oksana in the hall, and she made me feel a little guilty about my lack of interest in the trip. When I explained that I was graduating in May and probably couldn’t go, she told me not to worry about that: She’d had a student on a past trip who’d already graduated.

It’s actually not quite as simple as she made it sound: In order to go on a Maymester after graduation, you must still take the required classes, and you have to push your actual graduation date back until the end of summer. These things were not explained to me up front, but – once I got the idea of going to Russia in my head – I wasn’t going to let anything stop me.

I changed my graduation date to August and started looking for enough scholarship money to pay for most of the Maymester abroad. I knew early on that the typical Center for International Education scholarship wasn’t going to cut it, but then I learned that the School of Humanities and Social Sciences (HSS) and the anthropology department were both offering special scholarships for summer studies abroad. Both were competitive scholarships, and I knew whatever research I wanted to complete in Russia would have to stand out in order for me to be considered. In addition to an upper-level language class and a Russian literature course, I would be conducting an independent study – and that was what I was most interested in, and I had the freedom to choose any topic about Russian life, history or people.

Earlier in 2014, I’d learned that Russia would be hosting the 2018 World Cup and that the government was attempting to “modernize” the host cities there. I’d taken Social and Cultural Change the semester before, and knew that words like modernize are red flags for cultural change. Seeing the perfect connection between anthropology and Russian studies, I developed an independent study of the economic and cultural effects of Saransk hosting the World Cup. After what happened in Brazil, the World Cup and its effects had become a hot topic, and the subject caught the attention of both the HSS and the anthropology department. I was able to get enough scholarship money to go abroad!

It didn’t hit me that I was actually going to Russia until the night before I left. The two months before had been a blur: I was focusing on graduating and moving out of my downtown apartment, definitely not on being in Russia. Maybe that’s why I had almost no preconceived notion of what to expect. Everyone else, especially my parents, seemed to expect the Russians to hate Americans. They worried about how our little group would be received in Russia – that we would not be safe there.

The opposite was true. While St. Petersburg and Moscow are like any other big city in the world – lots of people from all over, and nobody exceptionally friendly – Saransk, a little town south of Moscow, was where we spent most of our time. And, in Saransk, the people are amazing! They were extremely open and welcomed us with open hearts. None of the young people behaved as if they hated Americans; they were just curious about our lives and the differences in how we grew up. As it turns out, there are very few differences, perhaps because American pop culture is so big there. The older people were a little reserved, but not because they hated Americans; rather, the Russian government portrays America in the same light that the American government does Russia, so they were skeptical and thought that all Americans hated Russians. Once we were able to sit down and talk to people, it was clear to see that – aside from cultural differences – we were not different at all. We’re just people trying to make the best life we can in this world.

This made my independent study especially interesting. People wanted to share their thoughts and feelings on Saransk becoming modernized for the World Cup. Most people thought the city needed to become modernized (e.g., new roads and better infrastructure). But many also felt like the government didn’t have the community’s best interests in mind. Economic security, a good education system and health care are what matter most to the people of Saransk, and they don’t really feel like the government is taking those things into consideration. Instead, they feel the government is only planning for the short term. It makes them a little uneasy.

Overall, I loved my trip to Russia. It was a great experience, and I learned a lot about the culture. It was not the easiest thing I’ve ever done – getting enough scholarship money, overcoming the language and cultural barriers and completing my independent study – but it was definitely the most beneficial. I was very lucky to make a couple of amazing Russian friends, as well as have my independent study published in one of Saransk’s academic journals. I will always be in Professor Oksana Ingle’s debt for encouraging me to have this amazing experience. I wouldn’t trade it for the world!

– Kathleen Holden ’15 graduated this past summer with a degree in anthropology and a minor in Russian studies.

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