We asked some SRAS graduates to share their open and honest evaluations of their experiences on SRAS Study Abroad Programs in Vladivostok. SRAS actively seeks out feedback from students on all programs so that we can continually improve our offerings.
Morgan Henson (Spring, 2019)
My time in Vladivostok has been memorable. There were extreme positives and extreme negatives for me while living in the Far East and here is my overall review of the semester.
The SRAS program I took, Economic Development in the Russian Far East, combines language study with the study of the economics and geopolitics of the region.
The Russian language courses were phenomenal. While at times a bit hectic with the number of different subjects – speaking, listening, grammar, and business/professional Russian – the classes were challenging and my Russian improved far more than it would have if I had remained in the United States this semester. The intensity of the courses was definitely not something that I have experienced in the past, but it was refreshing and forced me to work harder than I normally would have.
With this being said however, the teaching style of Russian professors is very different from the norm in the United States. Professors will announce your grades, tell you if you did poorly, and reprimand you in front of everyone in the classroom. The ideas of privacy around scores and individual criticism that is popular in the United States does not exist here. For those who are bashful about their grades, a semester in a Russian university will cure that.
In addition to the Russian language courses, I signed up for other courses taught in English: Geopolitics of the Asian Pacific and Socioeconomic Development of the Russian Far East. These two courses were a bit more relaxed than the language courses, but they were intriguing and the content was fascinating to learn about and discuss. While there was room for improvement, I thoroughly enjoyed taking these courses alongside students from different nations with various experiences and points of view. I gained an understanding of certain events and situations that is never presented in the United States and, in my opinion, places me at an advantage above my classmates at home. I intend to take this knowledge back to my university, apply it to my studies, and develop a powerful thesis as I head toward graduation after the upcoming school year.
Typical of the United States and Russia, bureaucracy can be annoying, can slow down results, and often requires you to jump through hoops to accomplish what you need. The university administration was similar in this respect. Most of the ladies in the international office were kind, but clarity and expediency were not priorities for them. My best advice when dealing with the administration at VSUES is to be prepared and patient. Follow the rules, do as the office says, and ask SRAS to double check any details if you believe there is a problem. As long as you never wait until the last minute for any requests or logistical details, everything will be fine.
My experience living in Vladivostok is different than most other students because I am black. I experienced things that I know my white counterparts did not and this, naturally, colored my opinion of the city altogether. I wavered between outright disdain and general apathy for many months in the Far East, but upon leaving I think about Vladivostok fondly. Through my trials and tribulations, I found wonderful friends who did not care about my race and helped me through the difficulty of being different, and I gained a level of patience I did not think was possible.
Vladivostok is not a large city and the city’s transportation infrastructure could be improved, but the citizens of Vladivostok have pride in their city and are proud of the fact that they live in the Far East. Most speak about how Stalin sent most of the intelligentsia to Siberia and the Far East, how their ancestors were the best and brightest of the Soviet Union, and how they are not afraid to think independent of Moscow. This mentality has earned the region a rather interesting nickname, “Russia’s Wild East.” While not as lawless as the U.S. Wild West, this part of Russia is very independent and the culture is different from what Americans normally study about Russia. For any students or travelers looking to experience a different face of Russia, Vladivostok and the Russian Far East is the place to go. It will be difficult at times, but that comes with the territory.
Jonathan Rainey (Spring, 2016)
At VSUES, my classes and coursework differ from my experience at my American university.
The first major difference is the length of a class sessions. Every class in Russia lasts 1:30. In the US, my classes were either 50 minutes or 1:15. It takes a little more focus to get through the longer classes, but I usually like the added depth to cover the concepts.
The number of classes per day stays fairly consistent. This semester, on Monday, Tuesday, and Thursday, I take two classes per day. On Wednesday, I only have one class. And on Friday, I have three. Last semester, I had two classes every day of the week. Now, two classes on a day isn’t bad. Three hours seems to be the right amount of time before I need a break to recharge. However, spending 4:30 hours in classes on Friday can be fatiguing.
The second important difference is that all of my classes are with the same group of students. As I go throughout my day, I’m not switching between classes filled with a different mix of people. At the beginning of the year last fall, everyone was divided up into numbered groups. Once I was assigned into my group, I got to know everyone within that group really well. For me, this tends to be helpful because we all improve at roughly the same rate with our grammar and vocabulary. Our teachers also get to know us by our group, so I believe that this creates a better teacher-student relationship.
The third thing to know is that, in Vladivostok, almost all of my classmates are from Asian countries. I am the only native English speaker in my group. So for those times when I think it would be so nice if the teacher explained a concept in English, I have to stop and think that it would actually be more logical for the teacher to explain it in Korean or Vietnamese based on the group demographic. This diverse demographic also helps necessitate the use of Russian outside of class. Most international students can speak at least a little bit of English, but Russian is what we all have in common, so it makes more sense to communicate with it. Class sizes are small, giving ample time for practice, questions, and dialogue. During the fall last year, my group had 11 students. This semester it has dropped down to seven.
All of my core courses are based around different aspects of the language. This semester my class topics are grammar, writing, reading, and listening.
Our time spent in class accurately follows what the names would suggest. In the reading class, for example, we practice reading texts to the group and subsequently answer questions or write short answers. Homework is typically reading one or more texts which we will discuss in the next class.
Our textbooks are quite basic, with sparse explanations of concepts or instructions on how to complete the exercises. The grammar textbook, for example, has minimal English explanations to introduce the grammar rules and exercises, but it is far from comprehensive. These are vastly different than many university courses that I took in the US. Textbooks, with glossy pages, pictures, and graphic design? Nope.
The upshot on this is that the textbook prices reflect their more spartan content. No one of my textbooks has run over 300 Rubles. For both semesters, I’ve spent less than 1,500 Rubles total for all of my books. That’s just under $20 at February 2016 exchange rates. No complaints here. With that in mind, I haven’t been able to rely solely on my textbooks for explanation. When I’m outside of class I regularly use other sources on the Internet to help clarify my understanding. As an example, my textbooks do not have complete case and declination charts. Rather, the explanations are spread out over the chapters. Overall, I’d say it is worth the trade-off. There is no shortage of ways I can find out an answer relating to grammar or syntax. The textbooks contain the most important thing, which is an ample number of exercises to practice the concepts.
This wraps up my first entry. Next time, I’ll try to provide a bit more insight into life in the dorms at VSUES.