New Year’s celebrations, December 31, at Palace Square in St. Petersburg.
The paths of each student and alumnus varies greatly, expanding all spheres and professions, however, one thing is consistent when we review the lives of CIEE’s former students; each and every CIEE student possesses an unparalleled passion for the world and knowledge, a wanderlust excitement to explore the world, and an ability to ceaselessly question all that is encountered. In this New Year, we wish for all of you to never cease questioning the world around you, to never let that adventuresome spirit within you dimmer, and for your passion for the world to be as strong as it was the day you chose to travel to Russia. We wish you all a Happy New Year and a Merry Russian Orthodox Christmas this January 7th!
Please join us in our New Year's edition, in which we share with you some of the inspiring lives of CIEE Russia’s alumni, which includes some of the CIEE love stories!
The Faces of CIEE
CIEE Russian Language Program, Fall 1982
Diana Ohlbaum embarked on her international education experience with CIEE Russia in the fall of 1982, when St. Petersburg was still known as Leningrad. After graduating from Amherst College with a BA in Russian, and completing a Ph.D. in political science from Johns Hopkins University, Diana launched a career in foreign assistance and international development. With over 25 years overseeing U.S. foreign assistance programs, primarily on Capitol Hill as a professional staff member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and House Foreign Affairs Committee, Diana now heads an independent consulting firm, which provides legislative and political strategy for sustainable human security.
“Living and studying in then-Leningrad was the formational experience of my lifetime. I have traveled all over the world since then, for work and for pleasure, and each journey always gets subtly compared and contrasted to my time in the USSR. I think that I see much of my life through the lens of that experience, and I still tell cocktail-party stories about living in obshchezhitie No. 6!
Although I did not end up using Russian professionally, there is no life experience which would have been comparable to my semester in Leningrad (except, perhaps, for the Peace Corps, and they did not offer placements in “communist” countries at that time). I did, however, end up studying in Moscow a decade later for my Ph.D., which was also an amazing period in my life, but not as life-changing as the CIEE semester.
During my CIEE semester, I learned to boil clothes in a pot on the stove, since we did not have washing machines. I learned to cook and bake without measuring implements, normal kitchen tools, or routine ingredients – at the time, we could really only buy eggs, sosiski (hot dogs), cabbage, beets and maybe a few other staples in the stores. We lived without toilet paper, without hot water (in the middle of winter!) and without safe drinking water from the tap (brushed our teeth with mineral water). We had no contact at all with the outside world. I could go on with stories about scarcity and deprivation, but what was most important were the people we met and the friends we made. I have kept in touch with several of them for 30 years now, despite worrying that we would never be able to see or contact each other again. The wall fell, the Soviet Union collapsed, the Internet was created – and the friendships survived.”
John & Tracy Machado
CIEE Russian Language Program, Fall 1993
Studying in Leningrad during the early 90s and experiencing the uncertainty, the volatility, the economic difficulties of a nation, and experiencing the depth of the Russian soul, is a life-altering experience that endows its adventurers with perspectives very few have been able to experience. Friendships and relationships form, such as the love that Tracy and John found during their semester abroad that will last a lifetime.
Tracy was a sophomore at Southern Methodist University in Dallas and John was a junior at the University of Tennessee when they met during their semester abroad with CIEE in the Fall of 1993. Majoring in Russian, John used his degree and experience with CIEE in Leningrad to launch a career in the U.S. Department of State, and Tracy became a Finance Manager. Studying in Leningrad put their fates in motion, beginning their love story, and creating an enduring relationship and passion with and for Russia and its culture.
“It was only a few months of our lives really, but it began a life journey. After our time in St. Petersburg, we went back to our respective schools and attempted to put the genie back in the bottle and just let that summer stand alone. The Horseman would have none of it. It took a long time. We lost track of each other, both secretly pining away and wondering what could have been.
I used my CIEE experience to move my career forward, working in US State Department’s Bureau of Russian and Eurasian Affairs, working in three US Embassies in the former Soviet Union, in Moscow, Tbilisi, and Bishkek. I certainly could not have done that without this program. Later, I was sent to St. Petersburg as part of Colin Powell’s team, and it came rushing back. Before I left DC, I did all I could to find Tracy. St. Petersburg will never leave you.
The journey that began 22 years ago in the CIEE Program had never ended really. A few years later we were married and spent our honeymoon in St. Petersburg, of course, walking the same canals and parks as before. We arrived on May 8, slept off some jet-lag, and emerged right when May 9 Victory Day fireworks were above. It’s a St. Petersburg story after all.
We now live in Dallas Texas, with our five daughters, and an appropriately-named golden retriever, Peter. It’s not possible for us to look at our lives now and not reflect on the program. We both have degrees in Russian, and are teaching our girls. Our home is a tour of the city; a painting of Griboedova, a palekh box of Letniy Sad, a bread ration card from 1942 framed on a wall, a bronze of Peter the Great on the mantel, a Cheburashka in the toy box, Ushanki in the coat closet. What Tracy and I found in St. Petersburg is as alive today as it was then. The CIEE Program was as wonderful then as I’m sure it is now. But be forewarned, this city of romance and beauty will change you, and you will never regret it.”
Katya & Jay Slater
CIEE Russian Language Program, Fall 2010
Another CIEE love story that began in the Venice of the North is Jay and Katya Slater. Jay, a software engineer was a Russian and Computer Science double-major at the University of Rochester, and Katya was a Russian and History double-major at Vanderbilt, who continued on to obtain a masters in counseling from the Dallas Theological Seminary, starting her career as the Education Coordinator at a non-profit pregnancy resource center. Katya and Jay’s friendship began in St. Petersburg, and strengthened and grew after they parted ways in December of 2010, leading to their engagement in 2014.
“As is fitting and proper, our wedding had a number of Russian elements that paid tribute to where our relationship began. For example, my bridesmaids carried books by Russian authors down the aisle, our ceremony music featured Russian composers, and perhaps most fun of all, our cake toppers were two matryoshka dolls painted to look like us! “From Russia, with love,” indeed!” (Katya Slater, CIEE Russian Language Program, Fall 2010).
How has your experience with CIEE in Russia influenced your professional life?
J: The language skills I picked up in Russia have come up once or twice in my professional life. A year or two ago, my company was presented with a chance to visit a trade show in Moscow. Although we were unable to exploit that chance, the Russian I learned while studying abroad let us consider it seriously. More generally, I find that being in Russia, getting to know some Russians, and gaining a better understanding of the Russian mindset puts me ahead of my peers when it comes to talking about the way that the Russian government interacts with the world.
K: Everyone is impressed that I spent a semester in Russia – particularly employers. Plenty of people study abroad in Western Europe or South America, but comparatively few choose Russia. It gives me a competitive edge, since it’s such an unusual location that is so significant, geopolitically. On a personal note, Russia is the reason I went into ministry. I learned who I was and who I wanted to be because of the people I met and the conversations I had. Studying abroad set off a chain of decisions that led me to the fulfilling life I have now.”
CIEE Russian Language Program, Spring 2008
Teacher of high school Russian in Chicago, Lauren’s penchant for Russian language and culture began with her undergraduate studies at Illinois Wesleyan University, and strengthening with her CIEE experience in St. Petersburg during the spring of 2008, and in Prague during the summer of 2008, where she interned with the Russian Information Service of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, After graduating with a bachelor’s in International Studies specializing in Russia and Eastern Europe, Lauren continued on to complete her masters in Russian, East European, and Eurasian Studies from Stanford University.
“I lived on the Fontanka in an apartment with Inna and Zora, who I recently learned are still hosting students. They used to make a grated carrot, apple, and honey salad that I now make myself. I didn't really like sour cream until living with them: now it's one of the most-used condiments in my refrigerator. Those are some tangible, edible remnants of my time in Russia. I think about Inna and Zora a lot when I come up with my lesson plans. The words I learned from them were right in front of me as they showed them to me – immediately useful and necessary: matches, traffic, towel, butter. I try and give my students words that they'll need and use, rather than vocabulary that has nothing to do with their lives.
While studying in St. Petersburg, I met one of my best friends. We ended up completing the same graduate program at Stanford and he moved to Georgia (the country, not the state) to teach English. I convinced a coworker of mine to fly to Georgia with me to visit him. En route to the Stalin museum in Gori, our marshrutka driver invited us to his home for dinner. We ended up in a tiny village called Mokhisi picking grapes and enjoying a feast of shashlik and homemade wine with some friendly Georgians who toasted in Russian. That day is one of my favorite memories, and there are a lot of little things that led me there, but the biggest one was CIEE, where I learned to say "yes" to things that are unfamiliar or uncomfortable.”
Russia boasts one of CIEE’s longest withstanding study centers. Founded in 1967, CIEE Russia is nearing its 50th anniversary of having its doors open to curious students who venture to Russia with a vigor for learning in and outside of the classroom, who pursue deeper insights, and who seek new ways of looking at the U.S., Russia, and the world at large. Following their experience in Russia, alumni have chosen to build careers rooted in Russian language and Russia, have chosen to build careers accentuated by their specialized knowledge of Russia, and have established careers in other fields, preserving their proclivity for Russia as a passion pursued in their spare time. Regardless of what path our alumni have chosen and choose, it is undeniable, the lasting effect one semester with CIEE in Russia has in shaping the lives of its alumni.
From all of us at CIEE Russia, Happy New Year, Merry Russian Christmas, and happy holidays! We hope to see you this May at the CIEE Russia Student & Alumni Weekend. Stay tuned for the official invitation!