HERE COMES SUMMER: Senior takes college-level Russian courses at Bryn Mawr

Senior Nicole Wolkov, third from the right, and fellow RLI students pose for a picture with two professors in front of Independent Hall on a field trip to Philadelphia.
(Photo used by permission of Wolkov)
Senior Nicole Wolkov, third from the right, and fellow RLI students pose for a picture with two professors in front of Independence Hall on a field trip to Philadelphia.

I’ve got an ugly sandal tan, a ravenous appetite for homemade meals and a semester of college credit in Russian.

Thanks, Bryn Mawr.

I was whisked away to Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania the morning after graduation (June 10), already three days late for the start of the Russian Language Institute (RLI) summer intensive program.

Luckily, the program coordinator approved my lateness and said that I would catch up on homework over the weekend.

That first weekend was searing hot, but I wanted to explore the town of Bryn Mawr anyway. That was a mistake.

I ended up in a designer clothing store, feigning interest in a $350 top just to drink all the complimentary water.

When I had finally returned “home” to the dorm, I took a nap and almost slept through dinner.

Luckily, I didn’t and made my first friends that night. I met two college students and a girl going into her senior year of high school.

The next day, I learned that I had met the only other high-school student in the program.

I had no expectations about the courses. I only knew that they were college-level and taught solely in Russian.

There were 23 students in the program, only three of which were male. The seven other women in my class turned out to be very welcoming, and my three professors were each uniquely charming.

My grammar class was taught by Ariya, a sweet woman and a professor from Al-Farabi University in Kazakhstan.

She would tell us stories about mishaps of living in America for the first time, and we would laugh along with her.

Every time we would answer questions correctly, she would exclaim, “Umnitsa!,” or “Smart girl!”

On one of the first days of class, she asked us what we wanted to do after university, in Russian, of course.

When it was my turn, I told her that I still had one more year of high school and still needed to get into university.

My conversation class was taught by Irina, a professor at Bryn Mawr. She would show us clips from old Soviet comedies and giggle at the cheesy humor every time. Sometimes it was very hard for her to stop.

We laughed, not because we thought the jokes were funny, but because of her reaction.

My third and final class of the day was taught by Mark, an optimist. There is no other way to describe him.

He, too, was a professor at Bryn Mawr. When he was not teaching us grammar, he used every opportunity for motivational speaking.

When we stressed about grades, he would explain that grades are only a marker for how much we were learning and didn’t define our worth.

The relationship between the students and professors at RLI reminded me of SCDS. The professors seemed to genuinely enjoy the personalities of their students and care about their students’ well-being.

There was a mutual respect between the students and professors, and even though we called the professors by their first names, we used the formal “you” form in Russian.

After two, one-hour-and-20-minute morning classes, we broke for lunch.

However, lunch wasn’t supposed to be a break. It was “Russian Table,” a time to practice speaking the language.

The professors would sit with the students to ensure that all conversations were conducted in Russian.

I experienced “Russian Table” only a couple times during the program, because the professors would arrive so late to the dining hall that the students would already be finished. Other times, the professors would choose to sit together.

A dorm at Bryn Mawr.
(Photo used by permission of Creative Commons)
A dorm at Bryn Mawr.

I could understand that the professors had no interest in listening to the conversations of students or watching them poke at something barely resembling food while speaking broken Russian.

Toward the end of the first semester, however, the professors actually started going to “Russian Table.”

It was more enjoyable than I thought. I learned that Bryn Mawr means “big hill” in Welsh. This aptly named college was built on a big hill, which made getting anywhere from my dorm, Brecon, a hike.

Multiple times each day I walked down one flight of stairs, through a valley with a gym and turf field, then up another flight of stairs to reach the main campus.

According to the girls from Bryn Mawr, Brecon is actually in a different county!

After lunch, I’d head back to the Russian House where class took place and sit again in the same uncomfortable chair for another hour and 20 minutes.

The most difficult aspect of RLI wasn’t the academics but college life.

Suddenly, I couldn’t eat when I wanted, because the dining halls had strict hours.

Then again, I really didn’t want to eat anything as the cafeteria food was overcooked and tasted horrible.

I also had to share a community bathroom with about 17 girls.

Luckily, all RLI students had their own rooms, so I was saved the horror of having a roommate.

I now realize that as an only child, the biggest adjustment I will have to make when going to college is learning to live in the same room as another human being.

Other than the roommate situation, I left Bryn Mawr feeling like I understood college life.

I look forward to it.

By Nicole Wolkov

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