Здраствуйти! My name is Sean O’Leary and I am going into Junior year at UT, studying Neuroscience and Russian. This combination of majors often takes people aback as they wonder what the connection could be between these two very different fields. However, for me, both represent an intrinsic part of myself.
Neuroscience enables me to obtain the insight as to where I am going (hopefully Medical school), while Russian, East Europe, and Eurasian studies has allowed me to learn about my origin, both by learning the Russian Language my Mother’s family speaks and also discovering the rich history and culture that Russia possesses. Now commencing my Fourth Year of language study I have been fortunate to have the opportunity to travel to St. Petersburg, the city where my Mom was born, and explore my roots in this culturally rich setting.
After waiting for nearly half the summer for my passport to arrive from Moscow (because as I found out far too late in the process you need to travel to Russia on a Russian passport not American if you are a dual (US/Russian) citizen), I obtained my Russian passport, and I finally was able to board the plane for St. Petersburg. Excited with thoughts of my Aunt, whom I haven’t seen in over a decade, and exploring the beautiful and historic streets and canals of Saint Petersburg, I couldn’t get any sleep on the 13-hour flight from my hometown of Houston to Russia.
Having spent the last week here, I have felt an overwhelming connection to the city. Speaking the language I would speak at a very basic level when a small child on a day-to-day basis, hearing songs I memorized as a child without even knowing the meaning, and eating the same food that makes me homesick for my Mom’s cooking has given me nostalgia and a feeling of wonder at many novel experiences at the same time.
During a weekend trip to Moscow (on which I’m currently on a train back from as I write this), our tour guide on a walking tour of Moscow discussed Russian perception of its own history within Moscow. While sitting down in a park near Red Square our guide gave out Russian chocolates and began talking about public speaking in Russian culture. Within Russia, from a young age children are encouraged to perform for others, to memorize skits, and to be able to articulate thoughtful comments when attending various celebratory events. During our tour guide’s own Russian wedding he described how one-by-one family members stood up and toasted the couple, giving long speeches that had clearly been prepared in advance, each one unique and heartfelt. The tour guide’s father was shocked by this, and though he couldn’t understand the Russian they were speaking, he was deeply moved by the sincerity behind this outward outpouring of love and support.
The description of Russian culture of encouraging public speaking made me realize something about myself I had never connected. From a young age I had always been encouraged to enjoy and value opportunities to express myself in articulate ways and perform for others. Throughout Middle School and High School, influenced by this love of speaking and performance, I competed in Public Forum debate for 5 years at a national level. In America the number one fear is public speaking according to numerous polls, however my personal background enabled me to be one of the exceptions to this statistic. Now in Russia I’m learning and realizing how Russian culture differed in this arena from American culture. I can see in my own identity the cultural influences that raised and formed who I am.
Being aware of where we come from, and what makes us who we are, allows us to advance our personal understanding while appreciating the cultural richness and diversity that makes us all unique. Over the next eight weeks I hope to continue learning about my heritage through a Russian lens while working to master the language (as well as master how to make the next train without barely seconds to spare)!
This post was contributed by Sean O’Leary, a 2019 Global Ambassador. Sean is studying abroad on the SRAS Russian as a Second Language program in St. Petersburg, Russia.
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