‘How many chances are you going to have?’


Mariel Sackman spent the summer of 2017 studying in St. Petersburg through the Russian in Russia program. The program included a three-day trip to Moscow where Sackman took this selfie with St. Basil’s Cathedral on Red Square in the background.

“It's not a bad thing to think about yourself sometimes,” says Mariel Sackman. “I mean, really, how many chances are you going to have to explore your avocations halfway around the world?”

That’s why the biomedical engineering major decided to study abroad in St. Petersburg, Russia, during the summer of 2017 right after her freshman year. And to devote her time there to studying the Russian language, rather than engineering.

In addition to improving her Russian language abilities, Sackman says, she:

• Visited arguably all of the prominent art museums in the country;
• Experienced life abroad as a resident rather than a tourist;
• Studied at one of the most prestigious universities in Russia;
• Fell in love with the St. Petersburg public transportation system;
• Learned about the history of the country;
• Tried delicious foods that she had never before had (blini, pelmeni, syrniki, sochniki, varenyky, khachapuri, and more);
• Watched old Russian cartoons with her host mother on weekend mornings and the news every evening;
• Quickly found a favorite grocery store, and purchased their in-house discount card. “I will cherish my Лаӣм (Lime- the store's name) card forever.”
• Experienced Russia's White Nights (where the sky never gets much darker than a dusky blue);
• Learned first-hand how to adjust to life in a new place;
• Formed friendships with fellow program participants; and
• Experienced the country at a politically noteworthy point in history.

And that’s not all. Seeing that she had already taken an introductory Russian language sequence the previous fall and spring, the four credits she received enabled her to complete a cluster in Russian language and culture “before setting foot on campus to start my sophomore year.”

Sackman learned about the Russian in Russia (link to: http://www.sas.rochester.edu/mlc/abroad/russia.html ) summer program during one of her introductory Russian language courses. The program places students in St. Petersburg for one month, where they are hosted by a Russian family, attend courses in Russian language (taught entirely in Russian) at the St. Petersburg State University, go on group outings to important museums and sites, and explore the city on their own in their free time. University of Rochester faculty members Anna Maslennikova and Nikita Maslennikov go with the students to Petersburg.

“As someone with very little previous experience in international travel, I saw the trip as a good opportunity to 'get my feet wet' with life abroad without committing to a potentially overwhelming length of time,” says Sackman. “Furthermore, as the program took place in the summer, I wouldn't have to try to match up a U of R biomedical engineering curriculum with international university course equivalents, which I would have had to for a semester abroad. Most importantly, though, I would be able to broaden my worldview, improve my skill with the Russian language, and visit an absolutely fascinating country at a fraction of the cost of a traditional vacation.’

“Simply put, I have multiple interests, and didn't want to deny myself education in a language that I adore just because the program it was part of wasn't science-y enough. All knowledge is useful.”

Essentially, the program was a University of Rochester course “that happened to take place in another country,” Sackman says, so the application process “was a breeze.”

She received Burton award that covered the cost of the fairly expensive airfare, without which she probably wouldn't have participated in the program.

Sackman especially enjoyed almost daily lunches at a 'stolovaya' (cafeteria) tucked into a side street by the river.

“This is a traditional daytime dining option for many members of the Russian workforce; it's cheap, it's quick, and the food is good. Seating is communal, and diner turnaround is constant. There, a person could easily purchase a very complete meal (juice, soup, a side dish, a main course, and a pastry for dessert) for the equivalent of about three dollars.”

Its patrons included soldiers from a military academy across the street, one of whom approached Sackman as she sat alone one day and asked if he could share the table.

“I was, I'll admit, a bit taken aback, but quickly said 'please do' and bam-- I had a member of the Russian military for a tablemate,” Sackman says. “This lack of classism, lack of formality, was wonderfully unexpected, and I suspect I'll remember it for the rest of my life.”

Her advice for other engineering students thinking about studying abroad:

“Seize the opportunity early. Science and engineering students in particular tend to have the 'if you're not doing research or an internship, you're not making good use of your summer' mentality drilled into them. By studying abroad before I had the educational experience to qualify as a particularly strong candidate for a research or internship position, I was able to pursue my interests without any doubts about how 'wisely' I was spending my time.”