St. Petersburg – Summer 2017

This summer, I had the pleasure of spending eight long weeks in Russia to do an intensive study of language and culture. I travelled with a third-party group, named the Council on International Education and Exchange. I studied full time at St. Petersburg State University with other American and British/Irish students while living with a Russian host family.

My understanding of this country and language, which I have previously studied the past few years, completely changed after this summer. First of all, I learned to have no expectations when going into a foreign situation like mine. Even though I went through culture shock debriefings and orientations through my program, nothing can really prepare you for what you will experience abroad. I had some preconceived notions of what to expect as far as cultural norms went, but, as is everywhere in the world, every person and situation is different. When considering understanding myself, I believe I reconfirmed my ambitions and reached my goals for my trip.

On the topic of understanding the culture itself, my experience basically guaranteed I would come out of it with a whole new worldview. Being especially in one of America’s top (political) adversary countries, I was enlightened to gain perspectives of average citizens there. It taught me that people have the same basic desires out of their leaders everywhere, and we are not all so different. The rhetoric that is taught to us through mass media often contains a lot of oversight in order to outline a clear enemy.

The overarching aspect of my project that led me to these conclusions was being fully immersed into the culture. Living with an average Russian family, studying at a Russian university with Russian professors, and fending for myself in society in general forced me to gain the tools to effectively communicate and understand the people with whom I was dealing. Unlike a lot of Western European countries, English is only spoken by a minority of younger people, often with the skill level that most students acquire from studying Spanish in the US in high school. Living with a family that did not understand any of my native language forced me to work 24/7 to improve my fluency to be able to effectively communicate to them my ideas and feelings in a complex fashion.

Everyday situations on the street usually helped to bring cultural understandings to my awareness. For example, one does not simply smile and say hello to people they do not know out of “politeness;” Russians view this as being superficial and unnecessary. I quickly learned this through the odd stares I received when I did this. Another example is the cultural idea of openness, where once acquainted with somebody, not many questions are considered inappropriate. Oftentimes in bars and cafes, others would become interested upon realization that we were Americans and draw up conversations on politics, which in America is usually seen as inappropriate, especially not being previously acquainted with the person. It is also through this, though, that I learned how similar-thinking the people were; drawing clear distinctions between how our governments operate and the political atmospheres with how everyday people felt about each others’ peoples.

These realizations are incredibly important to my education and my general worldview. I had sat in a classroom here in Ohio for three years learning about this culture and speaking this language to the same people. I neededthis type of experience to get this taste of true understanding. Coming back to school here and sitting in class learning about it again, my eyes are opened to my experiences and how I can use them every day. In general, it gave me a huge desire to travel more and become a more worldly person in general. I would whole-heartedly advocate for every person to spend time in another part of the world, as it is incredibly important to see that our way of life is not always the most perfect, and to be open to differences in people.


Iberian Nights: Family, Heat, and Castles

Picture it: Sicily 1936

Picture it: Spain 2017

A handsome young man in his early twenties disembarks from a flight in Madrid. As he steps outside to inhale the Spanish air the heat parches his throat and causes sweat to cascade from his brow. With his luggage in hand he hails a taxi to carry him to Toledo. Stepping out of the cab he looks around and takes in the ancient city. Beautiful stone towers reach towards the sky, a great wall surrounds the city, and the Tajo river wraps around the wall giving Toledo the appearance of a city straight out of Game of Thrones.

I literally sometimes pretended that I was in the world of Game of Thrones! (Fun fact: Some parts of the show were actually filmed in Spain.)

I’m guessing you’ve figured by now that the aforementioned handsome young man is moi. This summer I spent a month and a half studying Spanish literature, art, and culture at the Fundacion Jose Ortega y Gasset. The purpose of my project was to experience life in a culture different from my own. I wasn’t expecting such a culture shock. I always figured that outside of language there wouldn’t be a significant difference between the way most Americans and most Spaniards live. An example is that Spaniards have a different concept of personal space when talking with someone. It was not uncommon for them to stand really close while conversing and I had to actively resist the urge to take a step back and create more space. I also had problems with confidence in my Spanish speaking abilities. Until this past summer, most of the interactions I’d had with Spanish came in the form of a class room lecture or a book. I was presented with very few opportunities to use the language naturally and in a relaxed setting like home.

I also learned a valuable lesson about family. Families seem to be a lot closer in Spain. Instead of staying at the Fundacion I decided to stay with a host family. I had a mamá, Angeles, and a papá, Luis. They also had a son that lives in Madrid that I met once and a daughter that I often saw at the house, although she and her boyfriend had a house of their own. There were constantly guest that flowed in and out of the house every week and although the three bedroom apartment wasn’t the largest, there was always room for family. Late night dinners were always a family affair, with everyone gathering around the table laughing, joking, and jubilantly shouting so quickly that I sometimes struggled to keep up with the conversation. I learned the beautiful lesson about keeping family close and always making time and space to commune with one another.

My study abroad experience and the STEP program have offered me the opportunity to meet the incredible people that I have. It’s also allowed me to see a part of the world that had only existed in the form of maps and books and movies. Being able to travel to cities like Madrid, Barcelona, Lisbon, and Malaga (my favorite destination) has been a transformative experience. I feel like a better world citizen and a more well-rounded student. I had a chance to experience first-hand the beauties and troubles of Spain and its people. This study abroad trip was an amazing experience. Go Bucks!

P.S. Hold on to your phones and wallets in Barcelona and Madrid.

*To see more pictures from my Iberian adventure follow me on Instagram @rtj_1996


Ohio State Australia and New Zealand Leadership Adventure

My signature project entailed a trip to Australia and New Zealand. The trip had an outdoor theme so we went on lots of hikes, chose from unique activities, and got to explore an entire new world.

My understanding of the world definitely changed as a result of this trip. It made me feel a sense of how little I have seen in this large world. I have been out of the country before, but Australia and New Zealand just seemed like their own little worlds. Seeing all of the different sites in these countries made me realize something. As people, we often trap ourselves in our little world we call the United States, but we don’t venture elsewhere because maybe it is too expensive, not enough time or whatever excuse. I realized that after this trip how much I have often trapped myself by making several different excuses and not experiencing these great attractions in person.

In Australia, I was able to see many different unique scenes which included the Great Barrier Reef and the Sydney Opera House The feeling of being in countries like Australia and New Zealand was out of this world. Animals only seen in aquariums as a little kid, appeared right before my eyes. It was definitely an awakening. The Sydney Opera House was a whole new story. I knew it existed because I was finding Nemo, but I wasn’t able to completely grasp its shape or size until I saw it for myself. The way that the Sydney Opera House lit up the night sky is still embedded in the back of my mind.

New Zealand was similar to Australia but had several differences. First, the nature felt much different. When walking in New Zealand, it felt like the area was much less civilized. This was extremely apparent in one of our first stops, Doubtful Sound. The area we were at felt like it was in the middle of nowhere. However, when the sky turned dark and I looked up I saw some of the brightest stars I had ever seen since there was much less light pollution. The stars that I saw still awe me to this day. Another site that was awe inspiring was Lake Wanaka. As a group, we all went kayaking on the lake and it was one of the clearest lakes that I had ever seen. As we all paddled, the ripples on our paddles just seemed to disappear into nothing.

There were 24 people in total who went on this trip and not a single one gave me trouble. That is incredible. The interactions and relations I formed on this trip I hope will last a lifetime. Our group had so much fun, and I believe all of us got along with each other despite our different career paths we chose. I think I learned how to play three different card games as everyone was so helpful and understanding of one another. I have been on several group trips, but I think this is by far one of the best groups of people that I have had the honor of collaborating with on countries halfway across the world.

The transformation that this trip has bought me matters significantly as someone who has one year left of school. I now know that have 23 extra people in this world who would have my back in the very least, but I think I experienced a great deal more than just 23 extra friends. I got to see places that only a handful of people in this world have gotten to experience.

Most people only have pictures or videos of what might possibly go on in Australia and New Zealand, but they don’t know what it feels like to stand and look up at the Sydney Opera house. They don’t know what it feels like to snorkel and look down at a clown-fish. They don’t know what it feels like to look up at a clear sky and see more stars than they ever could have imagined. I think these feelings mean something, and I hope they will bring me good fortune in the years to come.