By Katie Ellenberg

When you hear “Russia,” what do you think about?  Vodka, communism, cold winters with great amounts of snow and standoffish people? Being able to go to a country and experience their culture first hand is something you should never pass up.

When I first heard about the winter ecology class that would be going to Russia to study, I was interested right away and signed up for it as fast as I could. As the fall semester came closer to an end and our departure date was closing in, I started to have second thoughts. To my little understanding, Russia is a country that we have a lot of political issues with and we are always on edge about. Especially with the election coming up and their great interest in Donald Trump, I was outright scared to go. Scared that I wouldn’t come back, or they wouldn’t let us in, or any other unreasonable notions. After realizing that not going was something I would regret more and more as time went on, I decided to go, trusting my professors wouldn’t put me in any situation that would bring me harm.

Come the day of travel and I am awake from 4:00 a.m. to 9:00 p.m. their time, totaling 33 hours and already I regretted my decision (I do NOT function well with no sleep and NO ONE wants to be around me, let alone myself). The first day of classes had me nervous as I had no idea what to expect; new people, professors with broken English and negative temperatures. One of my main worries was my embarrassment about being unable to keep up with the others, physically, as we trekked through two feet of snow getting to the stream. For a while, I had hoped they would just leave me behind and let me freeze. They, however, refused.

As the next few days came and went, I started to realize something: I am not in this alone. I started to develop friendships that would follow me back to the States and for years to come. I realized people were worried about the same self-conscious issues as I was, they just weren’t as vocal about them. And finally, I was in Russia, studying winter ecology. I would never have another opportunity like this.

This trip taught me that I needed to be more open minded and not just listen to peoples’ opinions until I, myself, had my own experience to them and could form my own ideas. For example, back to the beginning of this reflection, I assumed that the Russian people were going to be cold, rude, always having a drink in their hand, scary; but I could have not been more wrong (for the most part). The professors and other workers at the field station were so genuinely kind, warm-hearted, supportive, brilliant, (mostly) sober, encouraging, and proud of us. These people crushed all stereotypes that I had had about the Russian people.

Being in this country and being able to experience it has been something I will never forget. I value the lessons learned about the school subjects, yes, but more so my view on others in different cultures, and my peers that traveled with us. This journey has inspired me to keep traveling. Not just for vacationing reasons, but to see how other people live; their culture, their views, their behaviors. I want to be able to connect with people on a more personal level than I do at home. I want to be able to compare wildlife and natural habitats that we don’t have anything close to in the States.

I noticed that I always automatically assume the worst in others, linked to my severe self-esteem issues. When we were in Russia though, we were a strong group of people who never left anyone behind. We all acted as though we’ve known each other for such a long time. No one in the group was singled out, bullied or ignored; we all had each other’s back. I was surprised by how close-knit of a unit we were; I never thought people could be as kind, supportive, and free of judgment. Everyone brought their own set of skills and ideas to the table, ensuring that our learning experience would be as valuable as it could, or for better terms, invaluable.

This trip was something that I am able to get a great amount of worldly knowledge and self growth from. I have realized that I want to become more open-minded, open-hearted, more self-confident and most importantly, be able to experience as much I can of this world before I am filled with regrets and what if’s.

My name is Katie Ellenberg and I am a junior in the Fisheries and Wildlife program. Originally from Jersey, moved up here for Paul Smith’s, and loving everyday of it.