Opinion: Life as a Russian foreign exchange student

Barbara Kuznetsova

Image by Isabel Sperry

Since coming to Illinois Wesleyan, I have been asked about my experience as an international student alone in another country. There are three stages of accepting your position as a foreigner. The first one is the honeymoon phase where you are absolutely happy and excited about being independent and responsible. Everything you see astonishes you. You praise yourself for making such a good decision of leaving your home country. 

But after this happy phase comes resentment; you realize that you are completely alone in a whole new world where no one knows you. In this phase, you realize that you have left behind your entire world, and now you have to build yourself up, even though you feel completely broken. 

I, as a foreign student, used to feel I did not belong here, and no one would ever understand how I feel. Just like in five stages of grief, after this depressing phase comes adjustment and acceptance where you understand that you are completely different from anyone you know, but you are ready to fight for your future. On this stage, you realize that everything is worth it, and become prepared to take on the responsibility of overcoming any struggle that comes your way.

My education was what made me desire to abandon my old life and move to another country. I am an English-Writing major, and universities in Russia simply do not teach creative writing. Classes there are focused more on language than on literature. But not only my major made me move to the US. There is a tremendous difference between professors at Illinois Wesleyan and in Russia. 

My sister who got her bachelor’s degree in one of the top universities in Russia and was surprised with how professors treat students in Russia. In Russia, it is your problem if you do not understand a lecture, and you will deal with it alone, or with a teaching assistant (TA), if they explain decently. My sister was a math TA and her peers said that she explained better than the professor did on that course.

 Based on what my friends have said, lectures in Russia are monotonous and boring, but there are also practices similar to a lottery. During the whole semester, you get points for answering questions. When a professor asks someone a question, other students can bet whether this student will respond correctly. If you bet and the student answered the question incorrectly, you lose a point. If you go beyond zero, you fail the course. I cannot express how furious this practice makes me because you can lose all your points because someone did not study. I was in disbelief when I heard that no university in the U.S. has established a policy like that.

No one asks questions if you joke that you are so busy that you would jump off a bridge in Russia. No one cares. In one of my classes here, one student said that they had been dressed as a depressed college student for Halloween, and the professor immediately said that the student can talk to them or seek help from the counseling services if they feel overwhelmed. In Russia, people just start laughing and say, “Bro, same here.” 

Mental illnesses are perceived as something shameful, just like it is in other countries, but in Russia the situation is severe. In high schools, psychologists ask students to fill out the poll, telling students it is completely confidential, but later they tell a teacher in charge of your class your result and may even ask to redo the poll, so the school would not drop in rank.

My sister was astonished when she heard that IWU distributed financial help to students because in Russia, that is unheard of. Average scholarships there are equal to twenty dollars per month, which is extremely low even for Russia, so she could not clearly understand the fact that the university actually helps their students. 

For me, it was like night and day becoming a student in the U.S., given the educational process in Russia. I cannot speak for the domestic students, but for me, as an international student, it seems like everyone actually cares about you and how you feel. I am fortunate to have the opportunity to receive an education at a university that values their students’ well being and academic success.