University of Kentucky graduate and former Education Abroad Peer Ambassador Teal Hewlett sat down with me to discuss her abroad experience in St. Petersburg, Russia. Teal graduated from UK in 2013 with a double major in International Studies and Russian.
Q. Talk a bit about the program you went on.
A. I decided to do a program through a partner organization called AIFS. I chose this program largely because of the price, but also because there were different excursions included, including a trip to Finland and Estonia, and the academics were exactly what I was looking for.
Q. Why did you choose to go to Russia?
A. I chose to go to Russia because it was one of my majors, I wanted to learn the language, culture, political ideologies and history firsthand, and it was a different and unconventional choice for a study abroad location. Russia has always been a fascinating and intriguing place to me, and getting to live and study there was a lifelong dream come true.
Q. What was it like studying and living in a communist country? What differences did you notice in the ways of life there?
A. Russia is different than any other country in the world. It has many qualities of other European countries, but stands alone in a way that can only be understood after visiting it. Russia has always been viewed by Americans as somewhat taboo and strange, mostly because of the effects of the Cold War. Their history however is much richer and older than ours, and getting to see firsthand churches and palaces that were many hundreds of years old was extremely special to me. While the people look the same as Americans do, they are quite different in many ways. They aren’t as open or outwardly friendly, and they have different cultural norms. However, they also are much more genuine with their emotions than we are, and I made many lasting friendships with those I met. As with any foreign country, you never feel completely comfortable or safe, and I always felt slightly on guard, but it was an incredible experience that I will never forget.
Q. Do you see American democracy differently after living in Russia?
A. Absolutely. Once you live in a foreign country and truly experience the culture and interact with its people and genuinely listen to their stories and opinions, it forever changes you and your perspective on your country. When you stay in the same place your whole life, you only experience the norms and beliefs of the world around you. Living and studying abroad forces you to observe other perspectives and ideas. You look back on your country and understand that the way you were raised and the things that you were taught from a young age were specific to your society. You understand that beliefs and ideas you thought were strange are normal and an understood reality in other regions of the world. It was such an eye opening time in my life, and I came back a different person that when I left. This only happens though if you actually get out and explore the city/country you are in. This is the perfect opportunity to interact with people from all over, and you need to take advantage of it. The world is literally your classroom, and these real life experiences you have will be the best, most effective teacher.
Q. How did your study abroad experience impact your college experience overall? Being 4 years removed from college, do you think going abroad has impacted your success in the real world?
A. Studying abroad was a huge pivotal point in my life. It shaped who I am today in so many ways. It not only made me a stronger and smarter person who is deeply passionate about traveling, but it gave me compassion, humility, and gratefulness. After studying in Russia, I worked at the Study Abroad office for a semester, and then moved back to Russia where I taught English for a year and a half. If I hadn’t made the decision to spend a semester studying abroad, I have no idea where, or who I would be today. Because of my experiences abroad, I realized that I wanted to spend my life helping bridge the gaps between cultures and countries around the world, and help people to understand that while we may see and experience the world differently, we are all one and deeply connected as human beings. When we take the time to listen and attempt to understand those who are different than us, we begin to see that we are much more similar than we are different. Having that knowledge means everything to me, and I encourage everyone to at least look into leaving your comfort zone, if only for a couple weeks. Life is short and the world is big, Get out there and explore!
Natalie is a senior at the University of Kentucky double majoring in Secondary English Education and English with a minor in Psychology. She studied abroad during her junior year in the beautiful London, England at King’s College.