For most students looking to study abroad, one of the biggest questions they face is whether to pay the extra money for a homestay, or just live in the dorms, which for SRAS programs, are covered in your base cost. I have been lucky enough to study in Moscow and live at the dorms, and study in St. Petersburg and live in a homestay. I hope that my experiences will help you make the right decision… and live in a homestay.
Two years ago, I headed to Moscow for five weeks with a different study abroad program. Lomonosov Moscow State University/Московский государственный университет имени М. В. Ломоносова (МГУ) is a really cool building, and the tallest academic building in the world. For someone interested in 1940s Soviet history as well, it was awesome to stay in this piece from the past.
I had my own room, and shared the bathroom with only one other girl. I do know that at SPBGU, students are normally three to a room, and a common floor bathroom is shared. At MGU, there was a “Western” café in the basement with Internet, where I could buy delicious, inexpensive meals that were great for a vegetarian. There was also a laundromat and a woman who would do your laundry for a small price. For any of my late night cravings, there was also a small grocery store. I lived on a floor with mostly Americans, although there were a few Japanese students as well. However, except in classes and stores, I was speaking English. In addition, being in this large group of Americans made it hard to meet local Russians or even want to go out and explore. It was comfortable just to sit in with my English-speaking friends watching Mulan in Russian and counting it as a cultural experience.
When I decided to come back to Russia, I really wanted a program that offered homestays. I had friends tell me that it was the best and highly recommended it. SRAS is one of the few programs I found that offers homestays, and in addition to its unique internship programs, I was sold. When I got to St. Petersburg, I was extremely jetlagged, and my host mom started talking to me in rapid Russian, asking if I was a Canadian, and carrying my luggage upstairs for me. Once I was settled in, she told me to sit down, and immediately laid down plates of food. Refusing my help, she cleaned up everything and told me to relax. I thought this behavior would lighten up after a couple weeks, but she has been the same ever since. The food is delicious, she is incredibly kind and warm, and the practice with Russian is priceless. We talk about politics, literature, music (we are both fans of Vladimir Vysotsky), and just general everyday happenings. She gives me directions to currency exchanges, cafes/restaurants, grocery stores, et cetera, and gives me constant, and very helpful, advice. One of my favorite things is when we watch TV together. Firstly, watching Russian TV is not only good listening practice, but it also gives an amazing insight into modern Russian culture. Secondly, she will pause at a commercial and ask, «ты понимаешь?»/ “Do you understand?” If not, she will rapidly explain the gist of the scene.
Also at a homestay, you get all the comforts of home. Not only does she make me breakfast and dinner, but also she will buy little treats, like cookies or ice cream. Dinner is an extra cost, but more delicious and overall cheaper than eating at restaurants all the time, and very helpful if you have dietary restrictions. I do not know about other homestays, but my host mom also has a washing machine and home WiFi. For any animal lovers, Russian families often have cats, which, even as a dog-person, I must admit are a comfort. I also am forced to go out and explore more, interact with more Russians, and, in general, be more outgoing.
In short, if possible, I recommend a homestay. The extra money hardly compares to the experience you will get, with both your Russian ability and personal comfort.