My junior year abroad in Kiev, Ukraine, then the Soviet Union, was not my first experience in that part of the world. In high school I participated in an unforgettable trip to the Soviet Union with my junior Russian class, and after my freshman year at William & Mary I traveled to Kiev with a group from InterVarsity Christian Fellowship. By that point I was hooked and completely in love with the Russian language and its culture. That the Soviet Union was still behind the “Iron Curtain” made the country even more fascinating.
During my year in Kiev I made many close friends, and because of the slower pace of life there I had a lot of time to spend with them. One of my favorite weekly activities was walking around the city for hours on Sunday afternoons, just talking with new friends. Many of the students I befriended were Russian or Ukrainian, but I also had a unique opportunity to meet people from Iran, Afghanistan, China, Japan, and all over Africa.
I experienced history in the making during the 1991-92 school year. Ukraine declared its independence from the Soviet Union, and I witnessed some of the first Ukrainian elections, a change in currency, and the dismantling of Lenin’s statue on Independence Square. There were challenges, too, living in this historic time in Kiev. I lived in a poor quality dormitory and didn’t always have enough to eat. The lines for food, which had already been long, grew longer, and the store shelves became even emptier. I was issued ration coupons and often struggled to find something I could buy to eat.
I had little contact with home due to slow mail and a telephone system which required a trip to the main post office and waiting for a line to become available. I learned to overcome these challenges through trial and error, and by leaning on my new Soviet friends for support. I also gained confidence as my Russian language skills improved. Some of my learning came from the classroom, but most of it came from just living in a foreign country and being surrounded by a language I needed to learn to survive. When I returned to William & Mary for my senior year, I could see a radical difference between my abilities to read, write and speak Russian, and the abilities of my classmates who had not spent the year overseas.
I have been back to Kiev – one of the most beautiful cities in the world – and I have also been on many short-term trips with InterVarsity and church groups to various parts of Ukraine and Russia. After my husband and I got married, we ultimately decided to work in Russia (in western Siberia) for two years, and then I returned to Boston College to get my Master’s degree in Russian. My year abroad had a huge impact on my life, and it was definitely one of the best things I have ever decided to do. There is no substitute for the experience of being immersed in another country’s culture and language in order to gain a broader, bigger picture of the global community of which we are just a small part.
Janet Wehrle graduated from William & Mary in 1993 with a degree in Russian Studies, and from Boston College in 1998 with a degree in Russian Language and Literature. She now lives in Leonia, NJ and is a graduate student in the speech-language pathology program at East Carolina University.