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Study Abroad and Domestic Study Away

Notes from Abroad: Joanna in Russia

Joanna Makhlouf ’21 is majoring in International Relations and studying at the American Institute for Foreign Study program in St. Petersburg Russia.

Having the opportunity to spend a semester in Russia feels like a dream come true. I visited Russia for the first time during the summer of 2015. This was when I first fell in love with Russian cuisine and the Russian language. While I spent my first visit in Moscow, I’m studying now in St. Petersburg, at Peter the Great St. Petersburg Polytechnic University. St Petersburg is a beautiful city and is by far the most European of Russian cities. It is truly a “window to the west.” The program in which I’m participating, AIFS, regularly organizes cultural activities and excursions. St. Petersburg is a city of islands and canals. One of my favorite experiences was a boat tour on St. Petersburg’s Neva River. The views were incredible, as they challenged my perception of the city layout and construction. Another incredible memory was watching the opening of the bridges late at night. 

Adapting to the Russian culture was easier than expected. I am a Lebanese citizen and spent most of my life in Beirut. In 2014, I left my family to study abroad for three years before moving to the USA for college. Being a frequent traveler, I’m used to dealing with culture shock; exploring new cultures has become quite addicting. However, I’m finding it very challenging to become proficient in the Russian language. Knowing Russian is very important, not only because it allows me to communicate with locals, but also because it gives me a better insight into the Russian way of life. I know first-hand how language tells a great deal about societal and personal values. Language opens up avenues for exploring the logic behind various ways of thinking and behaving. Understanding Russian culture to the best of my ability is the primary goal of my study abroad experience. As a student of International Relations, I’m well versed in the topic of constructivism, a theory which explains how ideas shape identities, identities shape interests, and interests drive actions on the international stage. As a global citizen who hopes to contribute through my future career to building and sustaining peace in the world, I find it necessary to have a fundamental knowledge of the cultures behind the nations we often refer to as, “great,” and influential powers. In addition to Russian language instruction, I am also taking two courses. The first is a sociology course: Contemporary Russian Life. The second is a history course: Russian History from Kievan Rus to the October Revolution. 

Being in St. Petersburg enables me to apply the knowledge I acquire in classes to my everyday experiences. It allows me to better my perceptions and understandings of the place I am exploring. Visiting the Museum of Political History of Russia has been a wonderful experience. From being in the room where Vladimir Lenin wrote his most powerful articles, to seeing the balcony where he delivered his most inspiring speeches on the Eve of the Revolution, and visiting the exhibit dedicated to Stalin’s times of Terror, the museum left me feeling surreal and encapsulated by the significance of the place. My experience in Russia thus far has been indelibly rewarding. I am looking forward to spending my remaining two months here. I am deeply thankful to Ingrid H. and George L. Speros, whose Scholarship and generosity made this journey possible.