Thoughts on SPb (from Moscow)

Moscow is lit for NYE. Going to Europe and the States for Christmas is overrated. Go to Russia for New Year’s instead. I’ve been at my grandparents’ in Moscow for the past few weeks, and before that, traveling with family around Germany around Christmas. I’ve been relaxing, talking with family, celebrating the New Year with traditional extravagant Russian festivities.

This time away from SPb has given me the much-needed time to reflect on the past 4 months that I’ve lived through. “What an incredible experience,” is my first thought about my semester abroad. I have so many mixed emotions: I’m happy to leave, very happy to return to Amherst, but melancholy about the end of this journey and this chapter in my life.That’s what boggles my mind so much.

Study abroad is a completely unique opportunity that most people do not get and will never experience. And part of Amherst’s radaliciousness is that its students do receive this opportunity and a good portion do chose to do it. Part of my mixed emotions come from how I think I didn’t take full advantage of this opportunity, or that I fully understood it only near its end. I’ve heard from other students who had returned from one semester abroad that it wasn’t enough and that they appreciated their abroad experience only near the end of their time in their country. I feel that perpetual feelings of loneliness brought upon by lack of cultural assimilation really halted my experience, as well as my easy succumbing to that complicated Russian toska so beloved in international literature.

To explain: “Toska – noun /ˈtō-skə/ – Russian word roughly translated as sadness, melancholia, lugubriousness. As wrote Nabokov,”No single word in English renders all the shades of toska. At its deepest and most painful, it is a sensation of great spiritual anguish, often without any specific cause. At less morbid levels it is a dull ache of the soul, a longing with nothing to long for, a sick pining, a vague restlessness, mental throes, yearning. In particular cases it may be the desire for somebody of something specific, nostalgia, love-sickness. At the lowest level it grades into ennui, boredom.”

This is ridiculously dramatic, I know, but looking back, I realize this is most of what I felt during my lowest points of being away from family, from friends, from a sense of groundedness. Part of the reason I felt this was my social situation.

After getting waived off by Russian students with whom I tried catching conversations with, even with my terror of speaking Russian, and getting nowhere – I realize my mistake now was taking a few unfortunate conversations as a general truth and completely shutting down social interaction. In addition, not accepting my identity and having so many insecurities about its oddness added to the toska. I wish I had owned my sense of self and my unique history and used them instead of hiding.

The truest moment of this realization: the final presentation in my PR class. The students had to make a PR presentation for an organization we know of; I chose TEDxAmherst, for which I was the AC Marketing Specialist. I spoke about my experiences there, but I wasn’t really speaking – just rushing. My nerves got to the best of me and although I’m sure my American-taught charm and enthusiasm won over my class, the fact that I spoke about 600x the rate of a decent human being showed that I was Nervous™. Afterwards, a bunch of students came to me in the hallway, the same students whose faces I recognize from my Hollywood class. As it turns out they had no clue that I was an exchange student. We had a lovely hour long conversation and I realized that finally, 2 weeks before leaving, that I had found my people – folks interested in media and creation and analysis and what to do during and after college. That might be one of my biggest social regrets: choosing to hide instead of taking the risk of forming a connection.

On a funnier note, for the same class I had an extra-credit interview portion with the professor (my grade was otherwise completely fine except for the in-class participating part: I thought I had compensated for my shy lack of discussion with talking to the professor during breaks, but apparently that didn’t work). I was having second thoughts about this because he kept commenting on how “modesty beautifies a person,” with modesty referring to acceptance of the grade instead of acceptance of extra credit. We had a lovely conversation about PR, I got the extra points, but while packing up, I mentioned the modesty comments. My words were along the lines of, “As much as modesty beautifies a person, a grade bump for me would be much more satisfying.” In response, he told me that with my passport, I could go in life without considering modesty.

In other words: own your identity. Don’t hide. You are yourself and your experiences are valuable and needed.

My other major emotion surprised me in its strength: this huge outpouring of emotion for Amherst. I went abroad for a much-needed break from Amherst’s intense lifestyle and am returning so much more grateful to the support and community of Amherst – the intellectual curiosity, the collective identity, my energized peers, my supportive professors. The opportunities of a residential campus and a full-time education are so obvious to me, once more, after a look at other formats of higher education.

It’s so easy to forget how lovely Amherst is and I recommend a break from it just for this – to get a sense of other academic possibilities, to have an understanding of the self outside its rather insular community, and to re-enter the last year of college refreshed and ready.

Lord knows I will still miss SPb and the people and experiences I’ve had there. I highly recommend the opportunity to study abroad, even to students skeptical about its benefits. It’s hard to explain, and it’s a challenge to live through, but it’s worth more than you can imagine.

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