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08.02.2018
Summer Study Abroad: Important Updates

06.02.2018
The State of Study Abroad in Russia

03.02.2018
Russian Studies Abroad (RSA) Splits Into Two Programs

29.01.2018
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27.01.2018
SRAS and SPBGIKIT Language Partnership: The Year in Review

26.01.2018
SRAS Site Visit to Irkutsk

30.12.2017
Summer Programs Abroad - 2018

04.12.2017
Travel Alert for Russian Cities: May 25 - July 25, 2018

13.08.2017
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07.04.2017
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SRAS NEWS  / SRAS SITE VISIT TO IRKUTSK
26.01.2018


Each month the SRAS newsletter features lots of information about locations stretching from Berlin to Vladivostok and including Central Asia and the Caucasus. Want the newsletter? 


 

Destination: Irkutsk
April Djakoniya, SRAS Student Services Manager, shares her thoughts
after a short site visit to Irkutsk

  April-Irkutsk April Djakoniya, SRAS Student Services Manager, exploring a yurt camp near Baikal. Contact April to find out how SRAS can better serve your students.
   

Students making plans for summer study abroad to Eurasia may well have Moscow and St. Petersburg in mind. While these are excellent choices, we'd like to highlight another option that, for many reasons, might just be the right one for some of your students: Irkutsk. In December, I made a site visit to our Irkutsk location and the surrounding area to check on our students, meet with our partners and discuss preparations for some faculty led programs heading there this summer. Here are some of my observations from that visit to consider when advising students about study abroad in Russia.

Even Before I Arrived . . .

Before departing, I stopped at my local cell phone service provider to adjust my plan to accommodate my travel.  The clerk's eyes lit up when I said I was going to Irkutsk – it turns out this is her hometown. I walked away 45 minutes later with a hand-drawn map, a list of restaurants to try, things to do, places to see, and people to meet. I knew I was heading to a very friendly city.

A True Immersion Opportunity

Irkutsk is youthful university town. With five major universities, and an overall city population of only 600,000, about 15% of the population is students. Often called the capital of Siberia, Irkutsk draws students from all over Siberia and the Far East. While it is a slower-paced city, you can feel the energy coming from this young, active population. Everyone I encountered, from staff in cafes to cab drivers took the time to chat or help with questions, and upon hearing my accent, was patient and politely curious. There was a certain ease and authenticity to conversation which is different from what one often encounters in the bigger cities where westerners are no longer a novelty and the pace of life is too fast to take time out for conversation with a stranger. With far fewer foreigners, a lower concentration of English speakers and an approachable public, Irkutsk is ideal for those looking for a natural Russian language immersion experience.

Particularly this summer, with the World Cup in Russia, Moscow and St. Petersburg will be bustling with activity and overflowing with foreigners  -  Irkutsk is a calmer, but not boring option.

A Smaller, Accessible City with Lots of Culture

I call St. Petersburg home, and its status as the "cultural capital" of Russia is no secret, but I wouldn't hesitate to say that Irkutsk is its cultural cousin. Thanks to it having been the exile destination for various waves of intellectual elites, there is a strong tradition of theater, literature, museums, music, and education. Theater tickets sell out well in advance (plan ahead!), jazz, classical and rock musicians frequently tour there, there's a variety of master classes and an active environmental NGO community. The impressive regional library offers hands-on classes for the public in everything from research to book preservation. Incidentally, one of my favorite evening hangouts in the city center is called The Library Bar, which I think reflects the city's character – modest but with an appreciation for modern, low-key, high quality, always full of smart, young people willing to meet you and have a conversation.

You won't find a neon-lit strip of clubs and bars in Irkutsk, but just walking around and exploring, it seems that around every corner, if you pay attention, there is an interesting cafe or bar or store  - and you'll certainly be welcomed if you stop in. With preserved traditional wooden houses and its share of Soviet cement block buildings, it seems to exist equally in two different times, all the while modern construction and development slowly but surely adding to the city's facade, as well. If you like discovering hidden gems – Irkutsk is a great option.

dom_muzej_volkonskih_v_irkutske
Irkutsk is a smaller city - but teeming with museums, culture, and natural beauty.

An Active University and Integrated Student Life

The Institute of Philology where SRAS students study language is now officially part of Irkutsk State University (ISU). We had a very enthusiastic and warm welcome from leadership and staff - all eager to receive more students from the U.S. and work with us to create unique programming. Now consolidated with the broader, larger ISU, we hope to work to broaden offerings by partnering with other faculties such as biology and science. Already SRAS offers Russia and the Environment – a look at environmental history and policy in Russia with extensive out-of-classroom learning activities drawing on the unique local environment around Lake Baikal.

The university also offers a number of clubs and activities. A current SRAS student joined the university choir and is now traveling around Siberia with them, expenses paid! Our students in Irkutsk seem always be active and involved in local life. The location seems to attract a more adventurous student but the university is also set up to support this with an excellent university support staff, and our own enthusiastic SRAS representative who helps with cultural programming, the facilitation of activities, and helping students locate what they are interested in.

Perhaps one drawback - my visit to the dorms left me feeling a little disappointed. Having lived in Russia back in the nineties, I wasn't shocked by the stark, bare conditions, but American students should definitely be adequately prepared – something SRAS tries to help with in pre-arrival communications. On the plus side, the dorms are adequate and have a variety of grocery stores and nearby cafes. One of the two dorms houses Russian students as well, a great advantage that helps students acclimate to local life and make the best of the living conditions. Irkutsk is also a popular home stay location for us, with hosts genuinely interested in getting to know these student from afar.

All housing is a slight commute to the university, but with the lowest public transport costs in Russia (12 rubles or 22 cents for a bus ride) your pocketbook doesn't feel it and you're sure to get to know the city quickly.  In general Irkutsk is a very affordable city (about 15-25% cheaper than Moscow) for those students looking to keep a lower budget on their study abroad program, or budget more to travel and entertainment while abroad.

IMG_2074SRAS student Alaina DeLeo (in the center of the back row), exploring the city with friends that include local Russians and other international students. Alaina has proven especially adept at diving into local life and has shared her experiences on our student blog here.

Nature, the Environment and Service Learning

It's hard to describe the beautiful, majestic natural environment that surrounds Irkutsk. Just a 45-minute ride by car and you are on the shores of the world's deepest body of fresh water, Lake Baikal. I was there in early December, but the lake doesn't freeze until much later in the winter. It's just too deep to freeze so easily, even with Siberian cold to contend with. SRAS, working with the university has managed to leverage these surroundings to their fullest to create a truly immersive environment program.

The university arranged for my colleagues and me to sail on the university's research boat to a small village, Bolshie Koty, accessible only by foot or boat. Our students regularly take day trips there as part of their cultural program. Further, the university has a research camp there where students on one of our customizable faculty led programs will stay this summer for a few days, learning Russian and about the local environment and cultures in beautiful natural surroundings.

Back in the city, we met with some local organizations working to educate and engage people in preserving the unique Siberian environment. Our students also have the opportunity to meet with these organizations. The Interactive Ecological Center has a variety of creative programs and internship opportunities. We also partner with the Great Baikal Trail for a 2-week service learning opportunity where students take part in building an eco-friendly hiking trail around the lake.

For the nature lover, the hiker, the outdoor explorer, the environmentalist – Irkutsk is the right SRAS study location.

38295479205_db6c2b5f0b_zApril Djakoniya and Renee Stillings, from SRAS, sailing to Bolshie Koty with Yulia Arskaya, the institute's deputy director (center right, in the big hat), and Agnes J Sekowski from University of Texas (left, in the red gloves), who came in preparation for a faculty led program her university will soon send with the help of SRAS.

Travel Opportunities While In Irkutsk

We also encourage students to take advantage of local travel opportunities – so as to see more of the country while they are abroad. I took advantage of my time in Siberia to check out Ulan Ude. Just an 8-hour train ride or 45 minute flight away from Irkutsk, Ulan Ude is the capital of the Buryatia and a major center for Buddhism in Russia. The Buryats are the largest indigenous group in Siberia and, as a subgroup of Mongolians, share many cultural traits with their nomadic neighbors to the south. Once again I was met by incredibly kind and welcoming people who did their best, in two days, to share with me an entirely different side of Russia I don't get to see in St. Petersburg. I tried a traditional Buryat meal, visited two Datsans (Buddhist centers of worship) and took an additional sidetrip to the hot springs on the eastern and supposedly warmest shore of Lake Baikal. I was very pleased with the service I received everywhere and took time to investigate a few hostels and hotels to make selections for student groups traveling there this summer. There are two things I didn't have a chance to do and would recommend at least a 3-day visit to Ulan Ude to be sure to fit in:

  1.   IMG_2354
      A Buddhist center near Baikal. Buddhism is considered one of Russia's traditional religions, as it has been present on Russian territory for centuries. This is particularly clear in Russia's east, which was influenced by nearby China.
    The ethnographic museum, one of Russia's largest open-air museums showcasing a variety of traditional Siberian architecture
  2. The Old Believers Village outside of Ulan Ude. There is a population of over 50,000 Russians who maintain pre-17th century Orthodox beliefs. Their ancestors split from the Church in protest of reforms and many voluntarily exiled here.

For those fascinated by the vastness of Russia and diversity in the society – the location of Irkutsk is ideal for being able to experience this.

Overall my visit to Irkutsk was a success and I am eager to see more students select Irkutsk as a study location. If I were a student again, I know I would. For more information from a student perspective, read recent posts from current SRAS student in Irkutsk, Alaina DeLeo, who loves it so much, she decided to stay for a second semester. Alaina went to Irkutsk with essentially no Russian at all. I met with her while there and she is incredibly involved locally, and impressively already holds her own when speaking Russian.

As you are advising students about possible locations for study in Russia this summer (or next academic year), consider Irkutsk – it might be the right fit. So as to not miss out on St. Petersburg and Moscow, students could consider an extra 7-10 days at the end of their semester to visit one or both cities before departing Russia. Most students will need at least one connecting flight anyway to head home – and SRAS can help advise students on how to arrange a trip if we are informed in advance. Students could also choose to study on different programs for two semesters in two different locations! Russia is a vast place with many different sides to discover!


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