Arrival in St. Petersburg: Student Impressions

Published: February 10, 2022

Let our St. Petersburg students let you know what to expect when arriving to St. Petersburg! Heading abroad is always a big step and can feel exciting or overwhelming – or both. Learn from the experience of others and hit the ground running!

How did you feel when you first arrived?

Hudson Dobbs (Spring, 2022): Upon arrival in St. Petersburg, I was absolutely exhausted. The amount of effort I had to put forward in order to just get here was incredible. I was extremely nervous and hesitant to make any wrong moves – I had no idea where I was or how to communicate very effectively. After arriving to my dorm, I felt somewhat relieved and excited – I knew that I could finally sleep and then the next day would be here soon.

Sarah Gendron (Fall, 2019): My arrival was completely surreal. Staring out the window of the plane as it began to land, I was totally mesmerized by the city. Two things stood out to me immediately, the size and the greenery. I don’t know quite what I was expecting, but I quickly realized Saint Petersburg was much larger and more beautiful than I could’ve imagined. A touch of nerves hit when I stepped off the plane and had to navigate baggage claim and customs by myself, but the second I was through with the boring formalities I was greeted by student representatives from the university who warmly welcomed me to the city.

Katya Grigerman (Fall, 2019): I arrived by train to Saint Petersburg, and I felt very excited to get to the city. I had been here once, 5 years ago, but was really ready to spend 4 months truly exploring the city! Since we arrived at the train station, I just had to exit, and was already surrounded by the hustle and bustle of the city.

Alison Kane (Fall, 2019): The most overwhelming feeling I had upon arrival was exhaustion. To get to St. Petersburg I had to take three connecting flights. And, as luck would have it, my first connection was delayed for over three hours and I ended up missing my last connection. So I arrived in St. Petersburg, after over 24 hours of traveling, far too tired to feel nervous or excited. However, I do remember looking out the window in my half-asleep daze and thinking about how beautiful the city looked with all of the canals running through it.

Joseph Ernst (Summer, 2019): Whenever I am out of my comfort zone there is nervousness that I know I don’t want to feel, but it is still there. I think this is natural, especially when you’ve just arrived in a brand new country and culture. However for me, excitement always trumps the nerves. Driving in from the airport, watching the people on the streets and the beautiful statues and monuments pass by made my mind race through all the new experiences I was about to have. The sense of euphoria hasn’t left me yet, but sitting down on my bed for the first time was like being hit by a train – considering I had not been able to sleep at all during my flights. Though tired, seeing the city in the distance as I flew in, the forests and rivers, I just felt happy to finally make it to a place I have wanted to be for a long time.

Greg Tracy (Spring, 2019): Oh, look, a forest. The first thing that I noticed after touching down at Pulkovo Airport (other than how exhausted I felt) was a wide belt of trees on the runway. Whether or not they are enough to be considered a forest, I am not positive. But it definitely felt like an appropriate first sight for my first time in the Russian Federation. As I disembarked from the airplane and walked up into the terminal, I vividly recall the realization of where I was washing over me.

How did things go at the airport?

Hudson Dobbs (Spring, 2022): Passport control and customs were not nearly as strict or intimidating as I thought they were going to be. Originally, I had imagined a long, drawn out process where I would be questioned and my bags would be searched thoroughly. In reality, both took a combined 5 minutes. Meeting Polina (my SRAS contact) was easy, and she was very friendly. My luggage came out quickly and I got into the taxi within less than an hour after stepping off the plane.

Sarah Gendron (Fall, 2019): Passport control was a very quick experience. The line moved very quickly, and my conversation with the officer was over in less than a minute. Collecting my baggage was very easy – my luggage came quickly and was completely accounted for. Customs was a little stressful, I was taken to the side because my suitcase lit up on the screen, and the protocol seemed a little careless – the officer just yelled at everyone to walk straight through while she attempted to question me, so if anyone behind me was attempting to smuggle something into Russia, they have me to thank for their success. The officer spoke very little English and decided that my vitamins were to blame for lighting up the screen, and sent me on my way. After that, I stepped into the departure area of the airport (?) and was greeted by two students from the university who were very friendly and made me feel instantly welcome.

Katya Grigerman (Fall, 2019): Since I arrived at the train station, I didn’t have to go through passport control or collect my baggage. I was able to smoothly get off the train, and head to the entrance of the station where my Russian buddy from the program was able to meet me!

Alison Kane (Fall, 2019): I went through passport control in Moscow’s Sheremetyevo International Airport. Walking up to the lines I remember feeling very overwhelmed. My flight arrived hours late, I knew I had missed my connection, and did not know when the next flight to St. Petersburgh would be. However, going through passport control itself was very simple; the officer didn’t even say anything to me! I was quickly on my way, but still had to figure out when actually be going or arriving in St. Petersburg. After getting a seat on a different flight, I then had to get in touch with the SRAS St. Petersburg contact April letting her know my new arrival time. I was unaware that I would need a Russian phone number to sign into the airport’s wifi, so I gave her a quick call to let her know. At this point I began to worry about my baggage and if it would arrive with me in St. Petersburg given the delay and change in connections. However, I was pleasantly surprised to find it in baggage claim. Once I had my baggage, It was just a short walk until I saw a student holding an SRAS sign. She was incredibly welcoming and even helped me right my baggage when it all started to fall over.

Joseph Ernst (Summer, 2019): Flying internationally can be nerve racking, but I think when I just focus on getting from point to point I tend to not stress about it. After landing, I really only had one direction to go and that is where everyone else was going, but it took me straight to passport control. While in line, I could not decide if I should be nervous (where all my documents okay?) and remembering how horrible London border control was and that this was quite peaceful. Going into the little booth where they check your documents, you just stand there quietly and the official might look you up and down. The baggage claim was down the hall and down a floor but it was fairly easy spotting my flight number *always know your flight number*. I exited the secured area of the airport to see a very large group of people holding different signs. It took me a few minutes of walking back and forth through the crowd, but SRAS has a very recognizable logo.

Greg Tracy (Spring, 2019):  Getting from the gate to passport control was simplicity itself, walking down a short hallway and installing myself in the nearest line for foreign citizens. After a brief wait the immigration officer called me forward. Whether it was tiredness on my part or lack of volume on the officer’s part, I found myself having difficulty hearing his first question, which turned out to be asking my name. Luckily, my answer to that question proved to be enough and I was soon walking down into the baggage claim, where I collected my checked baggage and headed out into the arrival’s hall. I swiftly located an individual with a SRAS sign, only to discover that they were there for a different person, and I had in fact walked past my actual greeter. Nonetheless, I found her with minimal issues, and, once another student arrived, we headed outside.

How was the transfer to and arrival to the city?

Hudson Dobbs (Spring, 2022): The city looked large – much larger than I anticipated. I noticed lots of 3-5 story buildings with shops at the bottom and housing above. I noticed that it was very snowy and the drivers were very aggressive. When I got to my housing, the security guard let us through and I was provided with my student pass and key card. I was shown to my room and there was a goody bag waiting for me with snacks and water (which I desperately needed). I called my family to let them know I had arrived, and minutes later I was asleep.

Sarah Gendron (Fall, 2019): I’ll admit that the drive to the city was a little frightening – I experienced immediate culture shock by the driving. Russians make their own lanes and do what they want on the freeway. It seems chaotic, but you realize they have their own way of doing things, and we got to the dorm safe and sound, so I can’t complain too much. Arrival to the dorm was a little inconvenient due to the maintenance being performed on the walkways, but one of the girls who met us at the airport helped me with the luggage and the dorm wasn’t too far from the entrance. Everything was fairly quick when I arrived – I was checked in and given a tour within an hour of my arrival.

Katya Grigerman (Fall, 2019): When my buddy met me, we took a quick taxi to the dorm room. Unfortunately, they were paving the road in front of the dorm, and I had to carry my heavy suitcase across the drying concrete. Check in was very simple, I was able to get a blank key card to access the dorms (I would get one with my name and photo later), and I was able to quickly settle into my room before we had a quick tour around the city.

Alison Kane (Summer, 2019): The transfer to the city went pretty smoothly. I ended up arriving a few minutes before a group of four other students arrived so our buddy called a large taxi for us and we were able to fit four international students, our buddy, and all our luggage into the taxi. I was so tired on the drive I remember staring out the windows in awe that I was actually in Russia, but could not recall anything that I saw. Actually getting to the dormitory was a little hectic, they were paving the walkways to the dorms so getting our luggage to them was difficult and it would not be until later that I could really appreciate that the dormitories and university are right on the gorgeous Griboyedov Canal. Once I got into my room, some of the exhaustion fell away as excitement overtook me. Unpacking things in my room really got me excited for what was to come in the next four months I would be here.

Joseph Ernst (Summer, 2019): The drive to the city was exciting. Seeing Russian signs and advertisements immediately tested my Russian skill level, but hey that is the goal. My contact was extremely nice and we talked about why I wanted to go to Russia, and what being an American student is like. I arrived a few days after everyone else in the program, so arrival for me was really easy. I took my bags to my room, got some documents sorted out at the International Office and went on a short little tour of the surrounding area. I think it is important to make sure you know a few of the essential places when you arrive: bank, grocery, metro, etc, and that is what we did.

Greg Tracy (Spring, 2019):  Anastasiya (my greeter) called a cab and soon a middle-aged woman driving an SUV pulled up in the chaos of the taxi lane. After tossing my luggage in the trunk of the vehicle, I got into the passenger seat, where I was immediately confronted with my first test in speaking Russian to a native. I regret to say that I did not exactly pass with flying colors. After I managed to stutter out a few halting words the driver smiled and turned on the radio. The rest of the journey passed pleasantly watching the suburbs give way to the city proper.

Checking into the dorms also went quite smoothly. Anastasiya directed me and another SRAS student to where we had to go. I needed to present my documents at the main desk in the other dorm building, where I got a пропуск, or dorm pass, and my electronic door key. It is helpful to have an extra passport picture along to get the пропуск completed immediately. After that, we went to my dorm building, “7 lestnitsa,” where I received my room key and brought my luggage upstairs.

My first impression of my dorm room was that it was quite large. It is about the same size as the room that I have at my home university, and I don’t have a roommate here. April, the SRAS representative in St. Petersburg, left us welcome bags on our desks. These included our in-country phone, some snacks, and a map of the city.

How was your orientation?

Hudson Dobbs (Spring, 2022): Orientation was informative and clear. I was actually really impressed by how thorough and helpful it turned out to be. The SRAS intern, TJ, helped us with so many tasks and was truly our lifeline.

Sarah Gendron (Fall, 2019): Orientation was great. We were given a tour within an hour of arriving and shown where to get groceries, which bars to avoid, which banks to use, and given a crash course on the area. Survival Russian was fairly helpful – it was oriented towards us, so we focused on learning vocab and practicing interactions that were likely to occur on a daily basis, like conversations with cashiers in stores and ordering food.

Katya Grigerman (Fall, 2019): Orientation was really smooth. We had a few meetings with just SRAS, and also a few meetings with all the international students with the university. There were a few activities that SRAS planned for us to get to know all the students, including a week-long survival Russian course (I only took it for one day though because my language is at a fairly high level). I instead was able to attend several of the activities put on for all the international students by the Russian buddies, including a trip to IKEA, and an amusement park! This also allowed me to get to know the other international students as well, which was really great seeing as how all of us are living in the two dorm buildings.

Alison Kane (Fall, 2019): The orientation activities were all very helpful. The first activity was a quick walking tour around the area where they showed us places to shop, eat, and use atms. They also took us to a phone store to walk us through our options for cellphone use and help those of us who wanted to get SIM cards. We also had survival Russian classes for a week to provide us with the necessary vocabulary to complete everyday tasks such as ordering food, buying things, and understanding directions. While this course was very helpful, it did lead to those in the SRAS program missing out on a lot of the UNECON activities planned for all international students. This obviously was not a problem for Katya, as she mentioned, but I feel like it kept the SRAS students separate from the other international students for the first week, which was unfortunate.

Joseph Ernst (Summer, 2019): Like I said, I did not participate in the group orientation, but Lucy (a student coordinator for the program) gave me the locations of some good food spots, the internet name, and what I would be doing in the following days regarding registration.

Greg Tracy (Spring, 2019):  Soon after arrival, SRAS’ intern, Sasha, took me and another student for a brief tour of the surrounding area. She pointed out some restaurants, a couple banks and grocery stores, and what areas to avoid when alone. The short tour managed to pack a lot of important information in and was quite helpful.

Getting online was no trouble at all. The dorm building has a public Wi-Fi network that one can simply join. While there are some dead zones within the building, this is a high-quality connection that allows one to access the Internet with ease.

There is no reason that students should need to go hungry after their arrival. Two grocery stores, Dixy and Perekrestok, are just a few minutes’ walk from campus. Of the two, I definitely recommend Perekrestok. Although perhaps a bit more expensive, it has a much wider selection and higher quality items. Given that they are both close, I would only go to Dixy for snack or beverage type items. An even larger store, Auchan, is a short metro ride away but most items that one might need can be found locally. Auchan, and the IKEA that is nearby the Auchan, are also good options for picking up bedding, small appliances, or kitchenware.

My first impression of the surrounding area was difficult, due to personal exhaustion and disorientation. In my first week, however, I have gained a good understanding of how the streets are laid out and find my way around quite well. In particular I know the locations of the local supermarket, VTB bank, the nearest metro station, and some great restaurants.

Finally, SRAS and UNECON both work hard to give students a chance to immerse themselves in the cultural and historical heritage of St. Petersburg. In addition to a walking tour of the city center during the first weekend provided by SRAS, we also got a bus tour courtesy of the university during the first week of classes. Our local guide, Sergey, is a welcoming and knowledgeable man who will be leading many of our excursions this semester, including one that we have already had to the Hermitage.

How was registration and starting classes?

Hudson Dobbs (Spring, 2022): To register my visa, I needed to give the appropriate documents to the international students office. I had already registered for classes, but this week we started “Survival Russian” to help get us started and refresh us on some of the phrases and situations that will help us survive and thrive here. Official classes start next week, but I am enjoying survival Russian (although it is quite long and exhausting…. In a good way!)

Sarah Gendron (Fall, 2019): We were tested multiple times, but only one test was used for our placement. The test given by the university was very short and confusing, and the directions were unclear. We did an OPI for SRAS that was not used for our placement, but since it was a thirty minute interview, I felt it was a better gauge of our level and I wished it was factored into our placement somehow because I did very well on my OPI but not great on the one page university exam, and I ended up placed in a class below my level. The process for starting classes was actually a little frustrating. We were warned about the Russian style of scheduling things, but it was still a bit unnerving. We were told to check Facebook for our placement and the schedule on Monday at noon, but by the end of the day most of us still hadn’t been put in a group. We checked back every day, but my group didn’t even have a teacher or schedule assigned to us until Friday, I believe. The class that is a little more advanced than the one I was placed in started on Wednesday, and since we were told we couldn’t switch classes until we’d spent several days in the group we were placed with, it was a little stressful to see that class learning more and more material while my class hadn’t even started yet. My class has a very wide range of levels – some people have very little Russian experience while some of us have taken two years of it. The course is starting out very easy, but I have been hesitant about asking to be placed in the higher class because there seems to be a massive gap between the way the classes are being taught – this second year class seems more like a first year one, but the slightly more advanced course is teaching at a level that no one in it seems to be able to keep up with. There doesn’t really seem to be a good middle ground class, so I’m not as happy as I’d hoped to be with the language classes.

Katya Grigerman (Fall, 2019): We were tested two times, once by SRAS, and once by the university. We were all also supposed to take an OPI (oral proficiency interview), and these allowed us to get places into classes. The process for getting into classes has been a very long and tedious one though, since there are so many students, the process took a very long time, but finally after two weeks, most of us have started classes! We have regular Russian classes (with the other international students) and then also private hours with a teacher. We can also choose to get Russian buddies to practice with as well. Then we also get to take electives in English with everyone, and you can also take electives in Russian (it’s just more difficult because you have to work carefully around your schedule).

Alison Kane (Fall, 2019): Registering for classes was pretty straightforward. We had emailed in our elective choices a few weeks before arriving, but upon arrival had a short meeting with SRAS about our chosen courses and any changes we wanted to make. There was a bit of confusion on my end because it officially says the language component of the program is worth 10 ECTS, or 5 U.S. credits, however every student had a different amount of language credits their universities were offering for it. So I was not sure how many electives I would have to take to retain a full U.S. load of credits. As for the language class itself, our placement was determined by both an oral and written test by the university and an oral and written test by SRAS. SRAS also required we take an OPI as an unofficial gauge of where our language skills were coming in so we could see our growth at the end of the semester. Due to the block scheduling, only my language classes have started so far, the smaller 2-on-1 class and the larger group class. But they are enough to keep me busy seeing as the group class meets for 5 hours Tuesdays and Thursdays. Even just having this schedule for a week, I am not sure how well thought out it was to have five hour class periods.

Joseph Ernst (Summer, 2019): Getting my pass, copies of my passport and visa, and my pictures for my documents was pretty simple and did not take me more than a few minutes each – other than the photo, for which there was a line. I have been taking Russian for three years, but my language has definitely been tested. Not so much in orientation or arrival, but going to the store and speaking with locals that I have met. I generally understand what Russians are saying, but I am still finding my voice. It just takes some courage, the willingness to be wrong, and a whole lot of practice! I will say that Survival Russia (what you do the first week) is really good for refreshing useful phrases, and learning the basics of day to day speech that you don’t really learn from a textbook. I love my class, and it has absolutely given me a boost of confidence; not because I am excelling or anything, but because it has reminded me how rewarding learning a language can be.

Greg Tracy (Spring, 2019):  Within the first 24 hours of my arrival in St. Petersburg I had to register my visa with the university. This process entailed going to the International Office, which had been pointed out to me the previous evening. It is just a short walk from my dorm building, and giving them my passport, visa, and migration card. They took care of the registration and I received another welcome bag, this time from UNECON. I also received a справка, a document that has a copy of my passport, visa, and my migration card, as well as an explanation that I am registered at the university. I can carry my справка around the city in lieu of potentially losing more vital items.

SRAS has a great program called “Survival Russian,” which is currently being piloted in the St. Petersburg location. During our first full week in St. Petersburg, we went though an intensive mini-class that taught and reviewed how to get through everyday words and phrases in Russian. This included talking about problems with dorm room. It also included using common language for grocery shopping, giving and asking for directions, and holding conversations. At the end of the week we took a placement exam for our SRAS-sponsored individual lessons. The test comprised a short reading section, a multiple-choice grammar test, and a short speaking component with the instructor. Within a day I received my individual lesson schedule (the program uses a mix of both individual and group lessons). The following Tuesday the university gave an official welcome presentation to foreign students, and I also took a placement exam for group lessons. The exam consisted of a written portion and a group interview with the head of the Russian department. It might sound intimidating, but it was quite straightforward. On Thursday evening we received schedules for group lessons.

Having gone through all this, how do you feel?

Hudson Dobbs (Spring, 2022): I feel as if I am finally starting to get settled. I am still figuring out the best things to eat, as well as the best ways to spend my free time, who to spend it with, and where to find certain things I need. However, excitement is growing every day, and I know that I have an amazing opportunity ahead of me in these next few months.

Sarah Gendron (Fall, 2019): Despite my frustration with the classes, I am so incredibly happy to be in Saint Petersburg. I am in love with this city. I feel so much joy being here. It’s fascinating being a ten minute walk from the place where the Bolshevik Revolution started. There is so much history in this city, and so much beauty. I love this city so much, and I am so thankful that I’m here.

Katya Grigerman (Fall, 2019): I have absolutely loved the past two weeks of being in Saint Petersburg! I have gotten to know all of the American students in the SRAS program, as well as a lot of the international students. We have had several excursions around the city, and wow, it’s such an incredible place! I cannot wait to spend another four months exploring beautiful Saint Petersburg!

Alison Kane (Fall, 2019): I feel incredibly happy and lucky to be in St. Petersburg. I keep talking to my friends back home about all of the amazing things I have seen and done here in just the past two weeks. I still cannot believe I am lucky enough to be here for 3 and a half more months! I do not want to waste a single day of it. I want to see as much as I can while I am here and just enjoy all the amazing things St. Petersburg and Russia have to offer.

Joseph Ernst (Summer, 2019): Nearly a week in, and I feel great. I cannot wait to see how I progress personally, and all the experiences I have yet to well, experience. The city is absolutely beautiful, as are the Russian people and, of course, the language!

Greg Tracy (Spring, 2019): I found it difficult to form an initial impression of the campus, as all was shrouded in darkness on my arrival and coated with snow and slush. In the past week, though, I have come to enjoy the building style and the exterior wall that must be entered though gates. With all of the trees and nice architecture, I imagine that campus will be beautiful in the springtime.

My first weeks in St. Petersburg have gone altogether smoothly. Now that I am finally abroad, I have forgotten the pains of preparation and been wholly consumed by the adventure and experience before me. There is so much that I am looking forward to—from improving my Russian, to elective classes, to seeing the sights in St. Petersburg, to meeting new people. SRAS and UNECON have both done a great deal to ensure a seamless transition and I am positive that the rest of the semester will be even better.

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SRAS Wikis

SRAS Wikis are maintained collectively by SRAS Challenge Grant Writers and Home and Abroad Scholars. They are meant to be continually updated repositories of information created for students and by students to best suit each SRAS location.

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