Linguistics major Synthia Feng ’20, who is from Changzhou, China, got a bit of a travel break for the fall 2018 semester, replacing her usual 18 hours of travel to Bryn Mawr with a 10-hour trip to St. Petersburg to study at the Herzen State Pedagogical University of Russia.
“I did not do this program because I specifically want to do something in the future that is closely related to Russian. But the ability to communicate in another foreign language, especially one that has a significantly large number of speakers but relatively small number of learners like Russian, is always a benefit,” said Synthia when reflecting on the program.
Synthia studied in the Advanced Russian Language and Area Studies Program, a language learning program that improved her Russian language skills while also immersing her in the culture. She studied in small classes with content personalized to the students’ skill level. She was joined in the program by students from all over the world.
“My favorite course was the conversation class. We were provided a list of topics to choose from and therefore we ended up with many deep, interesting topics, which before I did not even think I could be able to talk about, like economic systems, international politics, mass media, modern technologies, social movements, LGBTQ issues, etc.” She also took courses relating to phonetics, grammar, history and politics, and word formation.
Synthia describes her host family as a “Russian grandma” who lived in a cozy apartment and provided her with a wealth of information in terms of both language and culture.
“I learned from my host mom how to make a crown with maple leaves. Nearly everybody in the garden made their own crown, especially girls, so it’s almost like a must-do in fall,” Synthia shared.
Other fun outings included a visit to a Russian banya spa, which Synthia said required them to switch between hot sauna and cold swimming pool several times while being massaged with birch tree branches (called веник).
“The process was super hardcore and fun. And I felt so refreshed afterwards.”
Synthia was happy to study abroad in Russia because she was really intrigued by the rhetoric surrounding the country and has always found it to be mysterious.
“Everyone seems to have a pretty concrete idea of Russia but barely anyone cares to verify it. I guess that I was just interested in what is actually under the many layers that have been forced onto Russia by the outside world, and I wanted to see it with my own eyes. I think the most important thing I gained from this semester is probably well-worn but is something people often unintentionally ignore, especially under the current political tension between the two countries and the obvious demonization of Russia in the Western mass media: people live in Russia normally, the same way ordinary people live in other countries.”