Arts + Culture

The study-abroad route less traveled: A year in Russia

Alyssa Haerle felt her first twinges of love for Russia in the Model United Nations program at her community college. It wasn't until she transferred to UCLA and connected with the Slavic languages department and the Russian Flagship Program that she went head over heels.
She took Russian classes. She spent a summer studying in Moscow. Her Russian improved. She came back, spent another year at UCLA working toward her major in political science. She took more classes in Russian. She picked up a $20,000 scholarship and is now spending a full year in Russia, studying and doing research. Every week or so she updates her blog, "From Russia With Love."
Haerle, 22, is among the nearly 2,400 UCLA students who study abroad each year. But she is among just 80 who are spending a full year abroad — and just one of two doing so in Russia. The numbers of university students who study abroad has been climbing, but most do so for a semester or less.
Half of all UCLA study-abroad students are bound for just five countries, four of which are in Western Europe: Spain, the U.K., France and Italy. The other is China. By contrast, UCLA students headed to all of Eastern Europe, Africa, South America and the Middle East together represent less than 10 percent of the total.
"Alyssa is definitely bucking the trend by spending a full year abroad, and by being in Russia," said Hadyn Dick, director of the International Education Office at UCLA, which oversees study-abroad programs. "But there's no right or wrong duration or destination for study abroad. It depends on what the student wants to achieve." One exception: If the goal is to become fluent in a new language, the longer the immersion, the greater the success.
In Haerle's case, UCLA's Russian Flagship Program provided a pathway to become immersed in Russian and study at St. Petersburg State University — the affiliated campus.
This year, the flagship program sent seven UCLA students to Russia, six for the summer, (including Haerle) and two for the academic year: Haerle and Gideon Sandford, who is majoring in Russian. The goal of the program is to help students reach a very high level of fluency and social and cultural literacy — the skills needed to actually work in the language.
That's beyond what most students who study a difficult language at the undergraduate level achieve, said Olga Kagan, director of the UCLA Russian Flagship Center and a professor of Slavic languages and literatures. "For students who commit to our program, it is a backbone to their studies."
Students considering extended study abroad start with an eight-week summer session. That's what Haerle first did in 2010. She was propelled by her interest in how social media was being used by Russian President Dmitry Medvedev. Not unlike President Obama, he embraces it as a key way to get his messages out, using blogs, websites, a YouTube channel and Twitter. Haerle's research on Medvedev is published in the UC Undergraduate Journal of Slavic and East/Central European Studies.
"Some students start out with an interest in Russian, and it leads to other interests," said Kagan, who also directs the UCLA Center for World Languages and National Heritage Language Resource Center at UCLA's International Institute. "I think with Alyssa, it was the opposite. She became interested in online sources of political discourse. Her interest in learning the language developed because she really wanted to understand what was going on."
Of the 26 Language Flagship centers based in the United States, four are focused on Russian. The centers are part of the National Security Education Program, established 20 years ago to boost expertise among American students in languages and cultures considered critical to U.S. national security, among them Arabic, Chinese, Hindi, Russian and Swahili.  
The National Security Education Program also oversees the highly competitive Boren Scholarships, the source of that $20,000 award that is funding Haerle's yearlong study in Russia. She is one of just two recipients of the scholarship in the UC system this year.  
In addition to her language and other coursework, Haerle has had an internship (in the Eureca program at St. Petersburg State University of Information Technology, Mechanics and Optics) and is doing research on the high-tech complex of Skolkovo, near Moscow.
Haerle lives in St. Petersburg with a Russian family — a couple and their 13-year-old daughter. Her room has a desk, TV and rocking chair. On days that they don't have too much homework, Haerle and her host-sister watch American films in Russian. Since arriving, she has made new friends and connected with old ones. She's also developed an appreciation for kvas, the popular Russian drink made from fermented dark or rye bread.
A California native, Haerle grew up in tiny Green Valley (pop. 1,027) in northeastern Los Angeles County. Being away from her family for an extended period and experiencing the cold of a Russian winter have been new experiences, which will be interrupted when she makes a trip home for two weeks over the Christmas holiday.
After graduating from UCLA in the spring — and after fulfilling a federal service requirement — she'd like to go to graduate school in business. The service requirement is attached to the Boren scholarship: Within three years, Haerle must spend a year working for a branch of the federal government. In the current tight job market, the requirement may seem more like a benefit than an obligation. She hopes she'll get a posting at the State Department and be focused on economic relations between the United States and the Russian Federation.
Meanwhile, Haerle's Russian is improving all the time. She reads trade magazines and newspapers and is in the midst of a detective novel, "Azazel," by Boris Akunin. "The biggest indicator for me of my current language level is the switch in goals from expressing myself in an understandable way to expressing myself in a way that is appropriate to the situation ... in terms of intonation, word choice, sentence construction and sophistication," she said.
Haerle noted that President Medvedev has recently opened an official account on Vkontakte, a Russian social networking site similar to Facebook. "What will be interesting to see is whether or not Medvedev maintains his active Internet presence after his presidential term is over in 2012," she said. His comfort with social media has distinguished him from Vladimir Putin, the former president and current prime minister who is expected to succeed Medvedev in March.
Haerle said she knows she made the right decision to follow her interests — in politics, social media and economic development — as they led her to Russia and a year immersed in its language and culture. "Also," she said, "Russian food is absolutely delicious," and in the United States "there is no fresh kvas."
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