By By Liana Satenstein, Special to the Chronicle
Just after arriving in Russia, I walked around the Kremlin with my friends Katya. As we jaywalked in heels, and listened to old Kino, we spoke about our respective experiences in school: my 10 months as an exchange student in Ukraine, and her life as a student in a small town outside of St. Petersburg. Both contrasted greatly with our present life as students in the first and only liberal arts school in Russia, Smolny College of St. Petersburg.
In my small, Ukrainian high school, there was a strong emphasis on repetition. We would memorize a poem and then repeat it back to the class; we rarely analyzed it or were asked for our interpretations. Before Katya attended Smolny, she had attended two other universities. "Smolny is my fit," she told me.
A student at a Russian state university has to pick a major in the first year and can only take required courses. This is not necessarily an incorrect style of learning, but it is different. Students at Smolny have friends who say they don't understand how students at Smolny can pick their own classes–it's just a foreign idea!
Smolny is somewhat of an anomaly as the first and only liberal college in Russia. It is often regarded as an "experiment," a hybrid of the Russian educational system and a small American liberal arts college. Most students at Smolny say it's a perfect fit for them because there is an emphasis on foreign language and how to use it conversationally. There is a relationship of equals between students and professors.
It has always struck me that when students get the chance to express their own views they become emotional and more expressive. I learn the best and have more to say in Russian when I talk about the symbolism of a story, and how the story affected me. If I am in a Russian lesson and I have to talk about what my favorite thing is to eat at the cafe for the 100th time, there is no doubt I can speak perfectly fine. But there is no flow and it isn't natural - it is mere repetition or I'm just murmuring meaningless phrases from a textbook.
I can read a dictionary a thousand times over, I can spit out participles, and I can correctly place commas and dip in and out of tenses. I can order coffee perfectly in Russian -- but what's that worth if I can't speak over it? Ask me my interpretation on Yevgeiny Onegin's letters to Tatiana, and I promise you: it won't be perfect, and I'm going to make mistakes when I speak in Russian, but you'll understand me perfectly.
As a recipient of Hofstra's Gilman scholarship, my focus was to research the Russian educational system. After months here in Russia, I finally understand how my experience in St. Petersburg ties into the both traditional and new aspects of Russia and its education.