As many of you know, the Honors Program and the various scholarships and fellowships that our Director of Scholar Development works hard to help students attain offer many unique opportunities for students to use what they’ve learned and apply it to their personal lives, futures, and careers. One of our former students, Quinn Hejlik who graduated with a BA in History and International Studies in May 2015 was kind enough to share his own experience with us. As an awardee of a Fulbright Grant, Quinn spent the last year in Russia teaching English and immersing himself in the local culture. Here is his story:
Just over a year ago, on September 12, 2015, I was on my way to the Minneapolis airport to make my first trip to Russia. I had spent the preceding days, weeks, and months preparing my visa, buying travel essentials, planning English lessons, and brushing up on my Russian, but I still had no idea what to expect. I had been to Europe before, but never Russia, and never in a professional or teaching capacity. I was excited, but nervous. This was the beginning of my Fulbright English Teaching Assistantship, which would be the next step in my life after graduating from the University of Iowa.
Throughout undergrad, I studied History and International Studies, with a focus in modern Central and Eastern Europe. I studied abroad in the Czech Republic and wrote an honors thesis on Czech and Slovak history, and began to take Russian language classes. Every step of the way I wanted to learn more, to dive further into the culture of Central and Eastern Europe. As I got closer to graduation, I was primarily looking toward either graduate school or a career in teaching. I applied for the Fulbright because it would aid me in either path, and give me the chance to live, teach, and be immersed in the culture of Russia. After a very long and arduous application process, I was selected to teach English at Baltic Fishing Fleet State Academy in Kaliningrad, Russia.
I spent my first few days in Russia at a Fulbright orientation session in Moscow (Red Square pictured above). This was basically advice on living and teaching in Russia. My main takeaways from this were “Do not drink the tap water,” “Watch out for icicles!” and “Under no circumstance should you drive a car in Russia.” Moscow was amazing and beautiful, though also enormous and very busy. I wish I had gotten more time there, but I was excited to head to Kaliningrad and start teaching. Those first few days in Kaliningrad were pretty hectic as I met a multitude of teachers, students, and other staff at the academy, and gave impromptu presentations about myself and the U.S. in several classes. The upside was that I didn’t really have time for culture shock or worry to set in.
(Pictured Above: Kaliningrad, Kant Cathedral)
TEACHING & TUTORING
After a week or two, I finally got a (relatively) concrete schedule of my classes and what I was going to teach. In addition to assisting my director with one of his classes, I taught four of my own classes, where I was the sole teacher, planner, and grader. In these classes, I primarily taught conversational English, reading, and grammar. I had two main concerns when starting classes, 1) not knowing if I could actually teach English effectively, and 2) what student conduct would be like in my classes. Before the Fulbright, I had gotten a little bit of teaching experience at Iowa, but starting my classes in Russia did feel a bit like being thrown into the deep end and being told to sink or swim. These doubts weren’t necessarily helped when, early on, one of my students, Nadyezhda, asked me how long I would be teaching in Russia, and I said for only nine months or so. She responded with something like, “oh, I don’t think we will get better at English then.” While that first semester did involve a lot of trial and error, I hit my stride soon after arriving. By the time my term was up in June, Nadyezhda and my other students had improved markedly, especially with listening comprehension and speaking fluency.
As for student conduct, I was concerned I might not command respect since I was foreign (and an American at that), and because I was only a few years older than many of my students (and younger than some of them). In fact, one of my classes was almost entirely composed of women who worked at the academy, and who were generally between the ages of about 35 and 60. But as it turned out I had almost no trouble in leading my classes or engaging the students in discussion. On my birthday, less than two months after arriving in Kaliningrad, a group of my students brought me cake and candy, and we had an impromptu party in class (pictured below). That was a special point for me, in terms of both feeling accepted and appreciated, and knowing that I was doing something right as a teacher.
In the second semester, I taught the same classes for the most part, but also started tutoring my friend Katya’s daughter and her daughter’s friend. These girls, Alina and Polina, were 10 years old, so it was quite a bit different from teaching university students, but it was a lot of fun. They learned vocabulary so quickly and were great at applying what they learned, but wow was it difficult to keep them focused and on task, especially with boring stuff like grammar and homework. These tutoring sessions became some of my favorite teaching experiences in Russia though. Alina and Polina were genuinely excited and interested in learning English, and I really felt like I was making a positive difference. For a school project, they chose to give a short presentation about Iowa, and they even drew the flag of Iowa (pictured below). Moments like that really reminded me of the value of my work there.
LIFE, CULTURE, & LANGUAGE
Living in Russia was amazing, but it does take a bit more adjusting than living somewhere a bit further west like Prague. For one, yes, the language is hard. I had taken two and a half years of it at Iowa, but conversational Russian is slightly more difficult than the textbook Russian you learn in language classes. I got a lot better at it throughout my time there, mostly through normal conversation with Russian friends, but it remained a persistent difficulty. Most people in Kaliningrad don’t speak much English, which was stressful but also really helpful for developing my language skills.
Food also took some getting used to. Some of it was fantastic, but some was a little outside my usual diet. A lot of it is, at its core, pretty similar to American food, with dishes being made up mostly of pork or chicken, potatoes, cabbage, bread, and vegetables. Very few native Russian dishes use a lot of spices, so it can be a bit bland, but it’s usually seasoned with garlic, onions, dill, and other herbs. Things like borscht, kolbasa, pelmeni, pirogi, and blini were fantastic. However, food is one of the areas that really forced me out of my comfort zone sometimes, which I suppose is a good thing. I have always disliked pickles, fish, mayonnaise, onions – all very common in Russian cuisine. But, on one of my last nights in Kaliningrad, one of my friends took me to a Russian restaurant and had me try whole pickles, canned fish with tomato sauce, and pickled herring (with the bones still in). I can’t say I enjoyed those things exactly, but I really am glad I stepped out of my comfort zone and into Russian cuisine. Oh, and even though they’re not Russian, I also really, really miss döner kebabs (called shaverma in Russia).
The most pleasant surprise for me was the friendliness of the people. Kaliningrad is a medium-sized city, about the size of the Omaha metro area, but almost all Kaliningraders will say that it’s a small town because it pales in comparison to the size of Moscow or St. Petersburg. And to my surprise, it did feel like a small town after a couple months of living there. I saw people from the academy all the time in the city, and they always made sure to say hello and ask how I was doing. Russians, or at least Kaliningraders, are a lot kinder and more approachable than what I had assumed before arriving. Once you become their friend, they truly care about you and do everything they can to help and make you feel welcome. Even with strangers I rarely had negative encounters, and never on account of me being foreign or American. I was, however, jokingly referred to as an “Amerikanski shpion” (American spy) several times by friends. And while Kaliningrad isn’t super diverse, I was lucky enough to have a group of friends that included a lot of Russians, but also a Ukrainian, a German, a Brazilian, two Turks, and two other Americans.
WHAT I’VE LEARNED
Now that I’m back in America, it’s easier to see how teaching and tutoring in Russia was more than just a fun and exciting experience. I developed skills in working with students of all different backgrounds, learning styles, skill levels, and future plans. I learned how to be adaptable and flexible when plans change, and how to think on my feet in almost any situation. I learned which methods work and which don’t when teaching English, and how to manage a classroom. So aside from being a really cool experience, the Fulbright was very valuable in my growth as a professional and educator. Since returning to the U.S., my future plans have changed a bit. Instead of applying for graduate school or spending more time teaching English abroad, I’ve decided to apply for jobs in university administration and advising. Even though it’s not exactly what I planned when I was writing my Fulbright application essays, I have no doubt my experience as an English teacher in Kaliningrad will continue to assist me in my professional endeavors.
(Quinn and friends at the Curonian Spit, a geological formation on the coast of Kaliningrad)
To find out more about the opportunities that await you through national and international fellowships and scholarships, check out https://honors.uiowa.edu/uihpfellowships for more information.
Written by: Quinn Hejlik, Honors Alum, History & International Studies, B.A. May 2015
Edited by: Katie Kiesewetter, Blog Manager