Fall 2015, ISSUE I
When in Rome, Do as the Romans. It’s a popular mantra for exchange students studying all over the world. There’s a similar, though not identical, expression in Russian -- В чужой монастырь со своим уставом не ходят (Don’t go to someone else’s monastery with your own set of rules). Thus, proverb wisdom says, in order to adjust to a new culture:
- Observe how the locals behave;
- Do as they do; and
- Don’t expect others to do as you do (or feel as you feel or think as you think).
Sounds simple, but while perhaps intellectually obvious, the practice of recognizing and appreciating new perspectives and ways of doing things is surprisingly complicated. Students must observe, study, reflect, explore and participate in their host culture. As students on CIEE’s Business and International Relations program have learned over the last two months, all that work can be exhausting, but also profoundly rewarding and critically important in today’s interconnected world. Read on for a snapshot of their journey.
Students arrived in Moscow on September 1, traditionally the first day of school in Russia, and began their program with orientation sessions and excursions designed to introduce them to Moscow. They took a bus tour of the city—with stops at major sites like Red Square and Sparrow Hills-- and a walking tour of the Metro to get an overall sense of Moscow.
Within the first month of the program, students had plenty of opportunities to observe elements of Russian culture as they participated in a guided tour of the Kremlin, learned about masterpieces of Russian art at the Tretyakov Gallery, viewed the collection of historical artifacts at the Museum of Contemporary Russian History, engaged with the interactive exhibits at the newly opened Jewish Museum and Center of Tolerance and watched a performance of “Sleeping Beauty” at the Kremlin Ballet Theater.
As Siyana Chekanov (Oral Roberts University) notes, the excursions gave students a new view of Moscow: “I feel like everything I see in Moscow looks beautiful in pictures, but doesn't come close to how overwhelmingly magnificent it is in real life! There is so much depth, so much life to the city that no photographer could capture.” Jennifer Adrian (University of Minnesota) agrees: "For me, seeing Saint Basil's Cathedral makes it real that I'm here, that I'm actually in Russia. It's such an iconic structure and every time I see it, it takes my breath away. And I always have to take pictures, because it seems that you can never quite capture the full experience in a phone, but I keep trying! Being able to see that is something I'll always remember."
I really liked the Jewish Museum and Center of Tolerance as the exhibits were highly interactive. I found that the museum was effective as it is organized like a timeline, and tells the story of the Russian Jewish community. In addition, I was able to learn a lot about Russian and Soviet history through the Russian Jewish experience. I especially liked the exhibits on Jewish emigration from the Soviet Union in the 1980s and 1990s. -Wildon Kaplan (Bowdoin College)
From left: Kristina Savchuk, MGIMO student, Siyana Chekanov (Oral Roberts University), Zhaoning (Johnson) Liu (College of William & Mary), Wildon Kaplan (Bowdoin College), Andrea Thorsted (University of Colorado Denver,) Jennifer Adrian (University of Minnesota), and Ben Griffiths (University of Pennsylvania).
Students on the Business and International Relations Program study at Moscow State Institute of International Relations (MGIMO), Russia’s preeminent foreign affairs university. Besides required classes in Russian language and US-Russian Relations, students take three to five elective courses and an optional internship. While sounding quite similar to the structure of a US university schedule, MGIMO has different rules and different ways of doing things. Students spent the first months learning how to do as the MGIMO student does.
When I first came to Moscow I assumed that my university here would be at least somewhat similar to my home university in America. I realized almost immediately how deeply mistaken I was. Upon arrival, I noticed some obvious differences: intense security, private bathrooms in the dorms, and no meal plan option. Unlike my home university, classes at MGIMO meet once a week, Monday through Saturday, and are an hour and a half long. Privacy is nonexistent in terms of academics. Grades are called out loud and every student knows who has the best and who has the worst marks. Classes for students entering the university are pre-selected and he or she must strictly follow the order of classes. There is no such thing as picking your own classes or having a “special case”. However, crazy as it may seem, now I have to strain to notice the differences, and the differences I do notice don’t bother me. It’s wild how quickly this new way of life has become quite normal after just a little over a month. -Siyana Chekanov (Oral Roberts University)
MGIMO’s School of Government and International Affairs offers a wide selection of direct enrollment courses to CIEE students, all conducted in English. Many of the courses have a specific focus on Russian business and international affairs—for example, Priorities of Russian Foreign Policy, Economic and Political Processes in the CIS, and the Economic Strategy of Modern Russia—and offer content that would not be typically found at a US university.
Courses that are staples for a US university, such as Philosophy, Sociology and Economics, are also offered as part of the School’s English language bachelor program. These courses, designed and taught by MGIMO professors, provide students a view of the material through the Russian lens-- with readings and discussions that encourage a comparative analysis of Russian and Western perspectives.
I was surprised by how my professor [of Economic Strategy of Modern Russia] portrayed the current state of the Russian economy as quite dire. I was expecting a more positive analysis, in line with nationalist sentiments, but instead it was very objective and similar to what I've heard in the West. What we talked about in the class that isn't highlighted in the West is the relatively untapped human capital potential of Russia - which is enormous. Russia has a long history of producing extremely intelligent scientists and experts, but these people aren't currently being completely utilized. If this was fixed, however, the outlook for the Russia's economy could look very promising. We don't hear about that much in the West. -Ben Griffiths (University of Pennsylvania)
Through living here, through the lectures by my professors, and through the discussions I hear in my internship, I can see that Russians really do value things differently. In the US, the main focus is on freedom through means of democracy and in Russia, their main focus is stability and order since, across their history, there hasn’t been a whole lot of either. And though they’ve tried and are trying to achieve democracy, not many people here or in the US can agree on what defines “freedom” and what freedoms should be given to the public. I've started to question more and more why the Russian mentality is a certain way and this has helped me to be more accepting when someone behaves or something happens in a way I did not expect. -Andrea Thorsted (University of Colorado at Denver)
When I took my Introduction to International Relations class in the United States, we were taught the basic theories of international relations and accepted them as being globally applicable and globally relevant. I was never told that the dominant theories of international relations were highly Westernized or based on the American experience, but that's one of the first things that has been mentioned in many of my classes here. Conversations in classes about what Russia values and why it makes the decisions that it does really help me to have a new perspective on their actions. And being in situations where not everyone is for the American position has forced me to look more closely at what I agree with and why, and through that I've gained a better understanding of my position. -Jennifer Adrian (University of Minnesota)
Extracurricular Events & Activities
Just like a US university, MGIMO offers CIEE students the opportunity to participate in a wide variety of lectures and academic conferences. In October, MGIMO hosted many events. A sampling: a week-long series of lectures on Cuba, a round table on Cloud Computing Technologies, an art lecture series “The World through the eyes of MGIMO,” and lectures on “Afghanistan: Problems of regional security and cooperation” and “The Iran Agreement: What’s going on behind the scenes.”
While these events are usually in Russian, MGIMO also hosts campus-wide events in English. This semester CIEE students joined MGIMO students in attending a lecture by Dartmouth Professor William Wohlforth, “The US Role in the Contemporary World Order” and another by Vice President of the East-West Institute David J. Firestein, “The Ex Factor: Exceptionalism and World Conflict.” In October, students took advantage of simultaneous translation to attend sessions of the Global University BRICS Summit, hosted by MGIMO and attended by international students, academicians, and government officials, including Russian Minister of Foreign Affairs Sergey Lavrov.
In mid-October, the US Embassy hosted a round table with U.S. Foreign Service Officers for CIEE students. For students of foreign affairs, the visit was invaluable, giving them a glimpse of what it’s like to work as part of the diplomatic corps. The Officers described the Foreign Service selection process and their individual roles at the Embassy, and discussed the challenges and benefits of working in the Foreign Service in Russia.
While the first few months at MGIMO involved a lot of observation, students also had the opportunity to participate in university life through clubs and activities. The list of clubs offered at MGIMO will sound familiar to any US university student – debate club, model UN, choir, business club, photography club, student theater, etc. Each week clubs announce their activities through social media and bulletin boards around campus. This semester, CIEE students have been active in International Club, joining MGIMO students in Moscow City Day events and a ballet. Students also took part in MGIMO’s annual Moscow Quest—joining a team of Russian students in solving riddles that took them all across Moscow.
CIEE student Zhaoning (Johnson) Liu (College of William and Mary) discovered the one club missing from MGIMO’s offerings – Chinese Club. While MGIMO’s student “fraternity of nations” is made up of many individual clubs — from French to Georgian to South Korean—the Chinese Club hasn’t been active since 2008. Johnson is working with the school’s international department to bring together Chinese students studying at MGIMO and Russian students of Chinese for language and cultural events.
Out & About in Moscow
A dynamic city of over 12 million people, Moscow offers endless opportunities for CIEE students to explore beyond the MGIMO campus. They’ve strolled through Gorky Park, attended city-wide festivals, discovered English language movie theaters and Georgian restaurants, hunted down Moscow’s “China Town,” and traveled by электричка (electric commuter train) to small towns outside of Moscow. Recently, they discovered the Moscow Anti-Café culture, spending an evening with MGIMO students watching the classic Soviet comedy “Бриллиантовая Рука” (The Diamond Arm).
I went to Zvenigorod and I was amazed that I could explore cities outside of Moscow easily on an elektrichka. On the way to the town, I got to see museums dedicated to the famous poet Pushkin and others about the Napoleonic Wars. I visited a monastery which helped me become more acquainted with Russian Orthodox Church traditions. It was a very beautiful, small town that had all the elements of Russian culture and I'm glad I was able to take the time to explore it. -Andrea Thorsted (University of Colorado)
But in the two months since arriving, CIEE students have done more than just explored Moscow. For example, Zhaoning (Johnson) Liu (College of William and Mary) opened a library card at Moscow’s famous Lenin Library and has learned to navigate the more-complicated-than-you’d imagine system for requesting books; Siyana Chekanov (Oral Roberts University) attends a non-denominational church that “feels exactly like a Russian version of my home church;” and Andrea Thorsted (University of Colorado at Denver) volunteers teaching English to teenagers in an orphanage with the NGO “Bolshaya Peremena.” They’ve done things that no tourist ever does; they’ve begun to participate in community life in Moscow. They’re doing as the Muscovites do.
To learn more about student life on the Moscow Business & International Affairs program, like us on Facebook (CIEE Study Center Moscow).
Всего хорошего (All the best),
Resident Director, Moscow