By: Dylan Hebert (History ’17)
Studying abroad in Irkutsk, a small industrial city in Eastern Siberia, one of my greatest and most rewarding challenges, was taking a mainstream history class with Russian students at Irkutsk State University (ISU). While everyone has different objectives when they study abroad, for those who want to get as much as they can out of the experience, I wholeheartedly recommend that they take a regular class from their host university. Studying abroad through the Middlebury International Language Program, I had taken history and other subjects in Russian with ISU professors before, but my other classmates were also English speaking Americans from the Middlebury program. Taking a mainstream Russian history class with ISU students was much more intimidating.
In contrast to most American universities, Russian students generally do not choose classes independently but are assigned to groups, with whom they take almost all of their classes throughout their time in college. Choosing to take a class on the history of the European Union, my group consisted of about twenty students. Unfortunately, unless a major assignment was due, typically no more than six or seven students showed up to class. Classes usually meet twice a week for an hour and a half. My class was an exception to this rule, meeting for one three-hour block on Mondays. Getting to class on time was essential, as the professor locked the doors to the classroom as soon as class time began. The overall atmosphere of the classroom and the university, in general, was very formal. Students dressed up nicely for class, especially the girls. One classmate even advised me to “dress for the grade that I want.” Students couldn’t believe it when I told them that American students often show up to class in sweatpants.
Grading is done very differently at ISU. While at Trinity we have online transcripts, in Russia every student has a small booklet with all of their grades alongside the signatures of their professors. While I have not heard of it being done at ISU, forging the signatures of professors in order to pass a class is not uncommon in some of the other universities in Irkutsk. Students generally find out about their grades after a one on one meeting with their professor. This can be nerve-wracking for many students.
Students frequently fail exams, but they are allowed to take them multiple times. Oral exams are common practice. Usually, the student and professor agree on a time to meet, the professor asks them a question, and the student answers it. This can be very stressful for students, but the fact that exams can be taken multiple times without any consequences is also a relief. Unfortunately, for me, having a flight booked, and a visa expiring soon after my final, I only had one chance. I was not the only person to take the exam that day, and the person in line in front of me left the professor’s office crying. Luckily, after a short discussion with me about my strengths and weaknesses as a student, the teacher informed me of my grade, I passed.
While I certainly learned a lot about European Integration in my class, if anything, I learned how to study history in Russian. While I already spoke Russian at a conversational level before enrolling in the class, every discipline has its own vocabulary and own style of writing. By taking a history class in the Russian language, I learned not only about my topic, but about the study of history from a Russian perspective, and the language connected with it.
Overall, however, the most rewarding part of taking the class was that it provided me with an opportunity to meet Russian students with similar interests to myself. In order to make the most of a study abroad experience, it is essential to meet local people and learn from them. This not only improved my Russian language skills immensely, but also presented me with a different world view as we discussed our opinions on history, current events, and other topics. While I learned a lot from the class itself, I learned even more from my classmates.