In the midst of the controversy surrounding the College’s debate whether or not to allow students to study abroad in Russia, Junior Amy Eisenschenk is one of the few Gustavus students spending the semester abroad immersing herself in the rich and diverse culture of St. Petersburg, Russia.
Eisenschenk, a Russian and Eastern European Studies major, chose to study abroad because she thought it would be a good opportunity to expand her understanding of the Russian culture.
“Our program is absolutely wonderful, but it is very hard to understand some of the fundamental differences between our countries and mentalities without experiencing it first hand,” Eisenschenk said.
When making her decision to study in St. Petersburg, she took into account the city’s captivating art scene and wealth of historical landmarks.
“I chose St. Petersburg because it is a beautiful and historic city. Countless novels are set here, art is everywhere you look, and history was made on many of these corners, but the limited number of options available did not make it a hard choice either,”Eisenschenk said.
Her journey from the United States to Russia was long and arduous, but nonetheless, she was excited for what the next few months would hold.
“When I first arrived, I had been awake for roughly eighteen hours. I was exhausted and overwhelmed. But the next day I was excited, but also uncertain,” Eisenschenk said.
Studying in Russia did require Eisenschenk to abandon some of the comforts she was used to living in America. Primarily, the constant, total immersion into the Russian language was her most significant change.
“My program is an intensive program, so all of my classes are in Russian and my host family does not speak any English. But after a few days, seeing what was expected of me, making a few friends, and getting used to the time zone, I felt significantly better,” Eisenschenk said.
On a smaller level, cultural differences that may seem minute to many have provided additional challenges to overcome.
“There are a thousand little inconveniences at first, but I do not even notice most of them anymore. I hate that dessert is considered a special treat rather than something you can take or leave as you like. The only other thing that I really dislike is that there are no tissues or Kleenex here anywhere. It seems like a little thing, but I have not even been able to find them in stores,” Eisenschenk said.
Nevertheless, Eisenschenk has thoroughly enjoyed her time in Russia so far.
“I have been to parks and museums that took my breath away, the tours I have been on were marvelous, and getting to understand the history better has made so much make sense now. I love plants, and the botanical gardens were so beautiful, they made me cry”, Eisenschenk said.
Her very favorite experience, however, is going to the “banya”, or participating in the ancient Russian tradition that consists of sauna, a cold pool or shower, and either getting or being hit with birch branches that have been soaked in hot water. “It sounds disturbing if you have not heard of it before, but I have never felt so good before and my skin has never been so soft”, Eisenschenk said.
Eisenschenk’s experience as a student in Russia has inspired her to fight back against negative stereotypes of the culture perpetuated by the ongoing insinuation that Russia is an unsafe place for students to be.
“I fully understand that anyone who has even considered studying in Russia has been asked, ‘Aren’t you scared?’ ‘Isn’t that dangerous?’ and the ever present ‘You’re not going to come back a communist are you?’ until you are sick of it.”
But, Eisenschenk assures that she is happy and very comfortable in her personal security.
“For first time in my life I have walked through a very large city in the middle of the night in a short dress by myself, and I was not worried whatsoever that something would happen to me. I know that that has the potential to sound insignificant, but it speaks volumes. Provided you have a basic understanding of a handful of social rules, there is very little to worry about here,” Eisenschenk said.
Politically, she admits that “there is controversy, both domestically and internationally, but I, as a civilian, have had nothing but pleasant interactions with almost everyone I encounter.”
While she is excited to return to her pet cats, driving a car, and her friends and family, Eisenschenk is in no hurry to return home to the States.
“I only am going to be here for a few more months, and I would rather I spend my time being present and enjoying and appreciating the time that I have. The fall here is absolutely gorgeous and there is always something new to do,” Eisenschenk said.
In the future, she “would like to work either on scientific translations or help provide cultural understanding to some professional field.”
Her time in Russia will undoubtedly create opportunities for her professionally as well as socially, as she has become comfortable and confident in her ability to navigate between American and Russian culture, as well as speak Russian conversationally and professionally with people from a variety of backgrounds.