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  • Elizabeth Penn

Russian Reminiscence: A Semester Abroad in St. Petersburg

Elizabeth Penn is a senior double major in International Studies and Russian from Murfreesboro, TN. After graduation she plans on pursuing a master’s degree in International Relations.

The author at St. Isaac’s Cathedral in St. Petersburg

January 30th, 2018 is the day that started my life-changing study abroad experience. I landed in St. Petersburg, Russia by mid-morning and was so excited I could burst. I had been looking forward to a semester in Russia since I was in high school, so I was beyond ready to start my journey. I enrolled in an intensive Russian language course, which also included Russian literature and history, at Peter the Great St. Petersburg Polytechnic University. But only days before I left, I was contemplating whether or not I should go after all. My anxiety over being away from family and friends began to creep in and I wondered if the trip was truly worth it. However, I tried to look ahead and eventually got over these fears.

Many classmates and professors had told me that the first few weeks are the worst during your time abroad. This was no different in my experience. I landed in Russia in the dead of winter, and let me tell you — Russia is famous for its cold weather for a reason. Up until the first weekend of April, it snowed at least a foot every day and the streets and sidewalks were always iced over. Growing up in the southern United States, I had never before seen so much snow. Additionally, St. Petersburg is so far north that in the winter months there is little sunlight in the day. For the first two to three months of my semester, the sun would only come out every 10 days or so. The lack of sunlight and frigid temperatures began to quickly take its toll on me, and I became quite depressed by the middle of February. To make matters worse, I was not making friends as quickly as I had hoped, and I had hardly interacted with Russian students. I wanted to go back home and forget the entire experience, but I carried on, hoping that things would get better.

By the time March rolled around, I was finally beginning to find my footing. A few friends and I took the overnight train and ventured to the Russian capital of Moscow, roughly 300 miles south of St. Petersburg. Moscow was an incredible experience. I saw all the famous spots Russia was known for, such as St. Basil’s Cathedral and the Kremlin! Another place that I visited was the Museum of the Great Patriotic War. This museum was like nothing I had ever seen before; it reflected upon all of the Russian lives lost in World War II and greatly changed my perspective on the war. Learning about this war in the United States, we never learn about the Russian side of it, and that was something that truly fascinated me. This trip also brought me closer to the friends I had made so far on my program. We played card games until dawn and ventured out to see what Moscow nightlife had to offer. Ever since high school I had wanted to visit Moscow, and I had finally made it — it was hard to believe I was actually there! After a month of struggle in my new Russian home, it felt like such a victory.

Upon returning from this trip, my study abroad semester completely turned around. One of my favorite memories of my study abroad experience came near the end of March, when I took a trip to Lake Ladoga and our group exchange students had a picnic by the completely frozen-solid lake. It was so surreal to be in Russia with other students from around the world, listening to music ranging from Usher to French pop, and hanging out on a frozen lake. When would I ever do that again in my life? My knowledge of the Russian language also started to advance rapidly, and I felt like I finally knew how to fully communicate with actual Russians. April through June went by so quickly, it felt like a whirlwind. I truly got to know St. Petersburg. I had my favorite coffee shop, a great group of friends from around the world and I could speak enough Russian to carry out a legitimate conversation.

It dawned on me that I had become much more independent than when I first arrived, and much more comfortable in my temporary home. Something incredible about St. Petersburg is that it is bursting with culture. Every day you can visit a different museum or historical site in the city and learn about Russian history. St. Petersburg has historical cathedrals known throughout the world, like St. Isaac’s, as well as the largest museum in the world, the Hermitage, which used to be the home for the imperial family before the Russian revolution. Russia feels European as you walk down cobblestone streets and sip expresso in outdoor cafes, and yet there is something about it that is unique and unlike anything you have ever seen before. I never had a boring day exploring St. Petersburg. It was certainly off the beaten path, but well worth it.

I guess the moral of my story is that stepping out of your comfort zone is 100% worth it — even though for your first month or so, it may not seem like it. I encourage every student to study abroad and take this risk. Whether stepping out of your comfort zone means going to South Korea or England, you will be happy you did it. Study abroad has definitely changed my entire perspective about Russia, and has also changed my future plans. I hope to return to Russia in the future, and I have made it a personal goal of mine to help soften the relations between the United States and Russia. Russia is an incredible country that deserves recognition, and I hope in the future more OU students study abroad there.

To learn more about OU’s partner programs in Russia, visit our Education Abroad program page.

Want to write a guest post for the CIS Snapshot? We love to feature stories from students, alumni and faculty about international experiences, as well as first-person stories from international students on campus. To submit an idea for a guest post, click the “submit your story” button on the Snapshot homepage or email Maura at

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