Justine in Russia: City-As-School

February 15, 2018

*Title is inspired by a high school in my city that I wish I went to, just because of the name. (City-As-School)

My study abroad program (CIEE) puts a big emphasis on getting us involved in the community and the city as much as possible, through excursions, interest groups, and even our classes. On Sunday, we all went on an excursion to the The State Hermitage Museum. The State Hermitage Museum actually has many buildings/parts, but we only visited part of the Winter Palace that day.

Here are some pictures from the excursion (note: none of these pictures are edited, it is actually that amazing in there)


All taken inside the Winter Palace.



Well, I did not want to post any faces of my peers without their permission, so this photo is edited.


This weekend, I also had the opportunity (and the excuse) to explore the city to my liking without having worry about to calling my host grandmother because she went skiing for half the day (yes, you read that correctly). I took the metro to Petrogradsky District (one of the “islands” in Saint Petersburg) and explored a bit. My first stop was the Saint Petersburg Mosque, which has been the top place on my bucket list for the past five years. The fact that it was snowing that day, made the experience even better. There is something about the snow that makes this city a lot quieter. Places like the Saint Petersburg Mosque and the Winter Palace really make me stop and think about how lucky I am to be able to be studying here. As for the snow, it does not really bother me as much as it does when I am at home.


The exterior of the Saint Petersburg Mosque on Petrogradsky Island.



The Neva River, which is currently iced over and covered in snow.

As for my classes, my electives started this week and I have only been to each of them twice so far, but I am really looking forward to the rest of the semester (as cliché as it sounds). My electives are: Russian Civilization: Popular Stereotypes and Social BehaviorGender and Sexuality in Russia, and Intercultural Communication & Leadership. 

In one way or another, all the classes overlap since they all discuss the culture of this city and country. Even outside of my classes, I feel like I am learning a lot about the culture of this city, when it comes to things like the metro, restaurants, etiquette, body language, etc. This city and country is not as stone-cold as depicted in the media, which I really wish put this country in a more positive light. Even with my extremely limited Russian, I have only had positive interactions with locals and am really feeling at ease with my life here so far.


My host mother, Luda or Lyudmila (Люда or Люмила) preparing tomorrow’s supper.

My understanding of my host mother also increases each and every day because there are words she constantly uses, but I am too shy to ask her to repeat. Also, she notices when I newly understand the meaning of how to use a word and she’s pretty happy with me. I was a little worried about living with just one person, but I actually really enjoy it. She’s really patient and really nice, but sometimes I wish I could help her around the house! She does not let me do dishes and every time I ask her if I can help, she tells me how I am a guest in her home. She says her job is to take care of the home, while my “job” is to study, explore, visit museums, etc. One of these days, I’ll finally do the dishes when she is not home and I’ll talk all about it. However, that wasn’t today, so I will see you next week around the same time.

P.S: for the people who are curious about the weather here….


До скорой встречи (see you soon).

Justine G.

Жюстин, not Джастин




Ella in Buenos Aires: Packing up!

February 14, 2018

Hello everyone! I’m Ella, and I’m from Minneapolis, Minnesota. I’m an International Studies major and I am also on the soccer team at UR! I’m super excited to leave for my semester abroad in Argentina, but I’m going to miss UR and my teammates so much. I chose to study at UCA in Buenos Aires because wanted to experience a new culture and be completely immersed in the Spanish language. A few of my goals are to improve my Spanish-speaking skills as well as play a lot of soccer while I am there!

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I’ve just started to pack up today, here’s a photo of a few of my essentials for my trip!


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I thought it would be nice to get my host mom a little gift to thank her for having me for a whole six months. I hope she likes it!


I can’t wait to leave this Monday. I’ve just gotten all the information for the pre-semester Spanish course that I am taking during the month of February before the semester starts. I’m so excited to meet all the other international students doing the same program and to start exploring the city.

See you next week!


Justine in Russia: Week 1!

February 7, 2018

Hi! It’s been able a week since I arrived in Saint Petersburg.  I’m a little surprised at how much and how little time I’ve spent here so far (makes no sense, but let me elaborate).

My first day in Saint Petersburg was not actually in the city, but instead at a hotel in the outskirts of the city, next to Pulkovo International Airport. CIEE holds orientation at the hotel for the first two days and depending on our housing situations, we all leave the hotel separately. The first days were stressful because the people who chose to live with a host family, were not given any information about them up until the day we arrived. I found out that my host family was just one person named Lyudmila, who was most likely going to be a grandma. I was not afraid of the fact that she was an older woman, but I was afraid of our language barrier considering I only know 1 semester of Russian.



My hotel room (during orientation)


At the end of our two long days of orientation, it was finally time for us to be picked up by our host families. I finally met Lyudmila (she insists I call her Lyuda). I was terrified as I walked out to meet her, but everything turned out to be fine. I found out that she has hosted students with zero knowledge of Russian, which is a bit interesting to me considering she only knows a few words in English (like mushroom, chicken, day, morning). 

So far, we understand each other alright. I would say I understand 80% of her sentences, but occasionally I do have to pull out Yandex Translate (not Google) in order to respond to her. We have breakfast and dinner together every night (all 3 meals on weekends), and I have enjoyed our conversations so far. About 20% of our meals are just us smiling at each other, but it’s okay. I got a bit sad my second night here because I really wish that I am able to talk to her more about her life, but she said it’s completely normal for me to not know much right now. As days go by, I am able to talk to her more since I have language class almost everyday and I am happy with my progress so far.


My bedroom in my host mother’s apartment!

An interesting thing I realized the past week is that Saint Petersburg has about 5 million residents, but I found the city to be extremely quiet. There are tons of people walking around and tons of cars/buses/trolleybuses going up and down the streets, but there is something extremely peaceful about the city. The only downside to this city so far is that there is so much snow to the point that the sidewalks are completely iced over and I even see locals slipping and falling (I fell only twice so far). My apartment is close to the city center, but far enough for it to be non-touristy.

As for the city, I have not explored much so far, but I did go to The Church of the Savior on Blood. I am not going to try to describe how this place blew me away, so I’ll just provide pictures of it.


Outside the The Church of the Savior on Blood.



The ceilings inside the The Church of the Savior on Blood.


My commute to school is approximately 40 minutes, but I am used to longer commutes since I am from New York City. We actually did not have class the first day of school, but we did have our language placement exams. I actually placed into Intermediate I (equivalent to 201), which I was happy about since I did not really review at all the past 1.5 months of winter break.


I’m sorry, no one told me I would be going to school in a PALACE.

So far, I’m really enjoying this city, but there are still many things I have not done nor have I seen and I am really looking forward to sharing my experiences.

До скорой встречи (see you soon).

Justine G.

Жюстин, not Джастин

Justine in Russia: Where Are You Going?

January 26, 2018

Здравствуйте всем – hello everyone!

My name is Justine and I’m a junior from New York City. I’m majoring in Healthcare Studies and minoring in Russian Studies. I will be studying at Saint Petersburg State University (СПБГУ) in Saint Petersburg, Russia through CIEE (The Council on International Educational Exchange).

I’ve only studied Russian in school for one semester, but have been exposed to Russian culture and language through my peers. I am less than a week away from the start of my program and I really am not sure how I am feeling right now. Currently, I am questioning my Russian language skills and thinking about how I am going to do anything there based on three months of Russian. However, I am still looking forward to my study abroad experience and I hope to share my experiences over the next 18 weeks. 

When I told my friends I was going to study abroad in Russia, most of them thought it was a joke up until my visa arrived. I honestly did not believe I was going to Russia until my visa arrived either. Interestingly enough, two days after I submitted my documents to the visa processing company, I received a phone call asking whether the “Xi” in my name stood for the 11th (XI). Unfortunately, it does not.

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My visa also spells my name differently from the way I normally do in Russian (mid-young-adult crisis coming along soon).

Why study abroad in Russia? Why are you studying Russian?

I don’t really know if I can explain the reasoning behind my decisions without confusing anyone, but I will try to break it down to three points.

1. I was sick of taking Chinese classes.

I grew up speaking Mandarin Chinese and Fujianese Chinese with my family and did not really speak English until elementary school. When elementary school started, I went to Chinese school every Saturday for the next six years. My middle school and high school both required foreign language classes as part of our graduation requirements. There goes another seven years of Chinese class.

At my first university (I forgot to mention I transferred to Richmond sophomore year), I took Chinese my first semester. I have been learning Chinese in school for about thirteen and a half years, and around 70% of the time I did not learn anything new. Almost everything I learned was review and it was extremely boring for me since I wasn’t really learning. I decided to take up Russian because I was really fascinated with Cyrillic script and have always been interested in post-Soviet culture.


The Russian alphabet follows Cyrillic script (used in languages including Belarusian and Kazakh).

2. My mom would not let me travel to Russia alone.

This point is pretty self explanatory and makes a lot of of sense, but there’s more to it. As much as I love my family, family vacations drive me insane, especially since I am the one planning everything and acting as a tour guide for every family member involved.

Also, I was not proposing to go to Russia and travel, I was asking to learn Russian abroad! Why not enroll at a class at the local community college or hire a tutor? BECAUSE this would still be two to three times more expensive than a round trip plane ticket and a month of classes in Russia or Kyrgyzstan. My mother said maybe and then said no after I did weeks of research on different schools and programs. When I told her I was going to study abroad in Russia, she told me she could not stop me at this point. 

3. I will probably never have this kind of opportunity again.

I’m always trying to suggest to my family to travel to Bosnia or Kazakhstan for our vacations, but instead they question my sanity and suggest for us to go to Germany or Spain (I never win). I guess my mind works the same way for study abroad. I am not trying to be pretentious in trying to go to the “quirkiest” place I can find, but I believe I could always just visit Copenhagen or Sydney in ten years and be okay with waiting so long in deciding to travel there.

I still have a few more days to take this all in and prepare for my semester, so I guess for now this is all I have for you.

До скорой встречи (see you soon). 

Justine G.

Жюстин, not Джастин

Meghann in Argentina: Saying Goodbye

January 6, 2018

I’ve been home for a little over a week now, and it feels like I have been abruptly dropped back into a former life: seeing family and friends from home, working, and getting ready to go back to school. I was partially expecting some drastic homecoming where, after half a year, I would feel completely changed and my hometown would look different, but what I experienced was far less dramatic. Not much at home has changed, and I am also pretty much the same, just with a slew of new experiences and memories behind me. It is great to be home in the U.S., but I know that it’s only a matter of time before I start really missing Buenos Aires and wanting to be back again.


It is difficult to make a “final reflection” about such a long period of time in which so much happened, but I will say this: if you are a University of Richmond student (or a student from another university, for that matter) reading this, I can’t recommend going abroad enough. I’ve hesitated to call these the “best six months of my life” to avoid running the risk of sounding overly dramatic (and, as many people joke about abroad students who return and rant excessively about their experiences, annoying). But now, looking back, I wonder why I shouldn’t consider this the happiest and most formative experience I’ve ever had? This period of time in my life was unique in the sense that I’m not sure that I will ever again have the chance to drop everything and briefly restart my life in a completely different part of the world. The places that I traveled, the things that I learned, and perhaps most importantly, the people that I met, have shaped me in a way that I can’t describe. So yes, I’ll say it, even if it does make me sound like the stereotypical “abroad CHANGED me” student: these were the best six months of my life, and I am so incredibly grateful to have had the opportunity to call Buenos Aires home.



Gracias por todo, Buenos Aires!

Jess en France: In Retrospect

December 21, 2017

I’ve been home for about a week now and have had the time to reflect on these past four months. Studying abroad in Paris at one of the most challenging schools in France was difficult academically—in other words I was studying hard and still in fear of failing…But the learning component of study abroad was hardly based in the classroom but in the experience of making a life for myself in a country whose language I’m only learning to speak, whose culture I’m trying to assimilate into, and whose customs I’m trying to adopt. It was one of the most necessary experiences I’ve ever had when considering my growth as an independent person. It was amazing, simply put, but I wouldn’t be telling the whole truth if I didn’t also mention that it was incredibly challenging, both emotionally and mentally.

I hit some high highs but also some low lows. I know for sure that I got bit by the travel bug. In total I visited twelve cities, six countries, and had exposure to at least thirty different languages. I learned to drop everything and go explore other countries as well as navigate the difficulties of problem solving that come with the inevitable stress of travel. On the other hand, I experienced what it’s like to be alone and feel alone. Initially, I couldn’t communicate effectively with almost anyone and needed the patience both for myself and the process of getting to know people like I’ve been transported back to freshman year of college. The first few months, in this respect, were very difficult. But George Addair once said that everything you want is on the other side of fear, and I cannot emphasize more how daunting yet rewarding turning about-face to some of the fears I didn’t even know I had has been for me as I understand myself as a changing person. In other words, I grew up, even if it’s just a little bit.

Most importantly, my conception of the planet and humanity’s role in it has dramatically shifted after spending these months working with homeless refugees. One of my good friends, Jumah, which mean’s Friday’s prayer in Arabic, is a Syrian refugee I came to know closely. On Thursdays and Sundays, I would go out to the Porte de la Chapelle neighborhood in the outskirts of Paris with the Refugee Help Association at my university to distribute information packets concerning asylum seeking. Jumah would help me translate for some of the refugees who didn’t speak French or English. There’s a lot people want to tell you but agonize to say when they don’t have the capacity to communicate, and, having moved to a country whose language I could hardly speak, I could resonate. He would translate for me, and on my first day on the job, a man from Afghanistan had said that if I didn’t get him a tent to sleep in before the winter cold set in, he was going to die on the streets. My work with the refugees was not only a wake-up call to the inefficacy of current state asylum policies, but it was also a reminder of our common humanity—that humans are humans who want the same things, who, regardless of where they’re escaping from, will stand in front of me as I offer them help and ask for nothing more than the hope to survive tragedy. We are all refugees because refugees are humans, and humans are more than the categories into which we narrowly enclose them. So whether or not the refugee crisis can be solved, all I would hope to impart as a witness to the receiving end of this common hardship is the recognition that these individuals are no different and want no differently than you or me, and this message of humanity is only irretrievably lost if we make the conscious decision to look at them as somehow intrinsically different. My brief experience having met Jumah and the many other familiar faces at Porte de la Chapelle is a testament to the dormant humanity that I trust will slowly swing to life and come to the aid of those who need it most. But it rests in our hands to question why we stand where we stand and why we think how we think. It’s up to us.

As you might imagine, studying abroad is emotionally enduring, but, for me, it became what I made of it, and what I made for myself was a life in a corner of the world that just a few months ago I couldn’t have imagined I’d have navigated fruitfully. I made the friends who then turned into hard goodbyes and the memories that have become indelibly written into my timeline as a maturing young adult. I’m not sure when I’ll be back to Paris or France or Europe in general, but a part of my identity was formed there, and, although my time there as an undergrad is finished, I know I’ll be back. I’m sure it won’t be long.


Meghann in Argentina: The Last Hurrah

December 18, 2017

I’m celebrating my return to a computer and stable Internet for the first time in nearly three weeks by finally writing a new post, having just returned from a backpacking journey that took me through Mendoza, Chile, and Patagonia! I had never done a trip like this before, so as I packed my relatively small hiking backpack at the end of November, I was excited for what lay ahead—my friends and I had a basic outline of what we wanted to see, but very few solid plans. I could write for hours about what I ended up doing, but I figured that due to the length of the trip, it would be easier for me to break it down by the places that I went.


Mendoza, Argentina

We began our trip by flying west to Mendoza, a city that is well known in Argentina for its wine districts. We were only there for about a day, but we took advantage of the time by renting bikes and biking around to tour various wineries.


Santiago, Chile

From Mendoza, we took an overnight bus through the Andes Mountains to cross the Chilean border and arrive in Santiago. It was interesting for me to spend a few days in Santiago, as it was another city I considered applying to when I began thinking about going abroad. Despite the fact that Santiago and Buenos Aires are both considered to be more modern and westernized major cities in Latin America, to me Santiago was noticeably different due to the fact that it was very American and English-oriented. The malls and stores looked eerily like those in suburban America (my friend and I took advantage of this by getting Dunkin Donuts on various occasions, which we have both missed dearly since arriving in Argentina), and a friend who is studying in Santiago explained to us that throwing random English words into sentences is a very popular practice.


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Dunkin Donuts was just one of many American stores and restaurants that we saw in Santiago.

That being said, Santiago definitely still has its own distinct culture, which we took in by trying new foods, experiencing Chilean nightlife, and doing a free walking tour that took us to many of the main points of interest across the city. The walking tour was also fun for me because it provided a refresher on Chile’s tumultuous political history, which I learned about in my First Year Seminar two years ago!



Palacio de La Moneda (the Presidential Palace), where the infamous coup d’état of 1973 that led to 17 years of military dictatorship and state oppression occurred, was one of the most interesting stops on the walking tour to learn about.

Valparaíso, Chile


One of my favorite places from the entire trip was Valparaíso, Chile, a colorful port city known for its abundance of street art. We only spent one day exploring Valparaíso, but that was enough time for us to see hundreds of beautiful murals and paintings that lined the streets.


It is no wonder that Valparaíso is considered an artist’s city—the murals we saw were all unique and carefully crafted.


Torres del Paine, Chilean Patagonia

From Santiago, we left the bigger cities for a completely different leg of our trip. We spent about a week and a half in both Chilean and Argentine Patagonia, home to some of the most breathtaking landscapes that I have seen in my life. Patagonia as a region is geographical diverse, comprised of impressive mountains, crystalline lakes, as well as deserts, pampas, and grasslands. We started by camping several nights in Torres del Paine, a national park known for a hike that leads to three massive rock “towers” (torres) that jut out of a lake. Camping in this area was an amazing experience; our tent was right at the foot of a snow-capped mountain, which meant that we woke up to a pretty impressive view each day.


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This sunset in Torres del Paine was definitely something that I won’t soon forget.


El Chaltén, Argentine Patagonia

We then crossed the border into Argentine Patagonia, where we traveled to El Chaltén. This small village is more recognizable than one would imagine, as it is home to Mount Fitz Roy, the prominent mountain that is used in the logo of the Patagonia outdoor brand. Seeing this mountain range in person puts the logo to shame, though—it is enormous, with a huge glacier and lake at the base. The views made the 10km hike through the icy wind completely worth it!


Trying not to blow off the cliff at Mount Fitz Roy.


El Calafate, Argentine Patagonia

Our last destination was El Calafate, a fairly touristy town that attracts visitors to another famous national park, this one known for Perito Moreno, a massive glacier that is unusual in the fact that it is advancing, while most other glaciers in the world are retreating. Apparently it is the size of the city of Buenos Aires, a fact that is almost impossible for me to wrap my head around (when I heard this, I imagined taking my 40 minute cross-city bus commute to university, just on top of a glacier). We took a boat that brought us close to the towering wall of the glacier, which stops abruptly in the water. It was mesmerizing to watch and hear huge chunks of ice crack and fall off into the lake.



Photos honestly don’t do the size of the glacier justice!


I was really pleased with how the trip turned out, especially considering that we only had a rough outline of what we wanted to do. I was able to see truly incredible sights with some of my closest friends from the semester, which makes for an experience that I will never forget. That being said, I am happy to be back in Buenos Aires and done with sleeping in 6-person hostel dorm rooms! I fly back to Maryland in just 3 days now, so the mix of excitement to be home and the numerous goodbyes that I will say in the upcoming days has created a very bittersweet sense of nostalgia. I truly cannot believe how 6 months here have flown by… the next time I write I will be in the U.S.! I intend to save my packing for the last minute and make the most of my last few days in this wonderful city.



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