Serena Hajjar (PPD 2018)
Politics & Public Diplomacy in Contemporary Russia Program (PPD) alumna Serena Hajjar looks back on her summer in Moscow and how it continues to impact and inspire her to this day.
American Councils (AC): How did you first become interested in Russian language and culture?
Serena Hajjar : My acquaintance with Russia and Russian culture began at an early age. I attended an Armenian elementary school where history classes exposed me to Russia as an imposing yet mysterious “older brother” to Armenia, towering over the border between the Western and Eastern spheres. From my elementary into my high school years, I pursued ballet, piano, and gymnastics, all of which shared a uniquely Russian flavor. Immediately after starting gymnastics at the age of six, my father, noting my budding passion for the sport, introduced me to the glories of Soviet gymnastics with a video of Olga Korbut gliding and flipping effortlessly from one bar to the next. I was mesmerized, and I dedicated every subsequent moment not spent in the gym to researching these gymnastics legends, most of whom hailed from Russia and Eastern Europe. I quickly became fascinated by Russia in its own right. Though I graduated from gymnastics and moved on to dance in college, I continued to consume and draw inspiration from Russian artistic culture, from its ballerinas to its belly dancers.
AC: What were your impressions of Russia when you arrived?
Serena: I remember spending my first few days in Russia drawing comparisons between the latter and Lebanon or Armenia, as a way of carving fragments of home within my new and foreign surroundings. In fact, I did this up until the day of my departure. I am a very sentimental person, so I suppose it was my way of connecting with Russia in a more intimate manner, one befitting a destination which I found personally meaningful like Lebanon or Armenia, more than just another adventure or vacation spot. Viewing my new environs through this lens allowed me to feel much more comfortable – at least culturally, if not linguistically – and ease into the experience.
AC: Tell us about your experience in the academic program.
Serena: The academic portion of the PPD program, hosted at Moscow International University, was one of the highlights of my experience in Russia. I am grateful for the opportunity to have participated in such intimate lectures – joined only by my four fellow program participants – with professors who were purposely selected as experts on their respective topics. I still have the journal in which I took notes during class, and I have referred to these notes repeatedly throughout my subsequent semesters at the University of Pennsylvania.
The Russian language class was particularly memorable. Our teacher, a sweet woman with a grandmotherly bearing, did not speak English, so she conducted the class in Spanish, while I translated into English for my classmate. We essentially had Russian, Spanish, and English languages swirling around the room at any given time! It was a humorous situation which I believe reinforced my understanding of the material by forcing me to pay even closer attention due to the use of one of my non-dominant languages.
The academic portion of the PPD program absolutely solidified my decision to add a Russian and Eastern European studies major to my international relations scholarship. I still distinctly remember some of the salient points discussed in the “Mentality” lectures with which the program commenced. Inspired by the knowledge I gained during these lessons in particular, I eventually decided to write my senior thesis on Russian national identity and how it influences Russia’s foreign policy. I also noticed and appreciated the progressive design of the academic syllabus, where each week built on the previous week’s content. This was extremely effective in not only combating boredom and monotony, but also helping me piece together the Russian puzzle which I had originally set out to solve – or, at least, begin to assemble – during my time in Russia. Armed with the tremendous knowledge and insight I gained from the academic curriculum of the PPD program, I returned to the United States ready to fully embark on this journey of unraveling the Russian riddle throughout the remainder of my studies in university.
AC: What type of extracurricular activities did you take part in?
Serena: The majority of the extracurricular activities in which I participated were daily excursions to illustrious museums, famous parks, and distinctive neighborhoods with my fellow program participants after class. We were a small group of five – six including our resident director – so we quickly formed our own little troupe and moved about merrily as a unit. A few times a week, we would link up with other local Russian students to join in discussion groups at the university or set off on outings around Moscow. Whenever I explored on my own, I would inevitably wind up at the Kitay Gorod skate park, where I would flip around on the bars and calisthenics equipment. After all, it would be a crime if I neglected this unique opportunity to practice gymnastics in what I considered the very motherland of the sport itself - Russia!
AC: What are your plans for the future? Is Russia or Russian language a part of those plans?
Serena: In April 2020, I was awarded a Fulbright English Teaching Assistant Grant to Russia, so I am planning on returning to Russia in January! I am still awaiting my placement within Russia, but I am thrilled and grateful for the opportunity afforded me by Fulbright to engage in cultural exchange between the United States and Russia.
AC: What was the most interesting/special experience you had living in Russia?
Serena: The relationships I formed in Russia were by far the most special and touching experiences I had during my stay in the country. The unique bonds I forged with locals, my fellow PPD program participants, and our resident director came perhaps as a bit of a surprise to me, considering the “stony” reputation Russians tend to have in the Western imagination! My program-mates and I became a band of unlikely siblings, quick to support each other in any situation and eager to spend the majority of our time joined together. It helped that we were each quite distinct in terms of personality, background, and interests, so we complemented each other very well as a group.
Regarding my friendships with locals, I became particularly close to two women introduced to us by the PPD program administrators. Not only did these women treat us with warmth, but they quickly went above and beyond in companionship, inviting us to events that they had originally planned to attend themselves and enthusiastically introducing us to their own friends. I was touched by how readily they brought us into their own social circles, with seemingly little hesitation. Needless to say, I was honored to be included in all of these activities, especially since I was nearly a decade younger than them, too!
Our resident director similarly exceeded his duties by miles – or rather, kilometers. I would joke to my friends back home that he was our “Russian dad.” My program-mates and I all marveled at his stamina – surviving on minimal sleep each night while carting us to every class, excursion, and outing – and his seemingly endless knowledge of even the most esoteric subjects. I was particularly touched by his generosity towards each of his and his keen eye to detail. I noticed how he took note of our individual interests and consistently introduced each of us to people, places, or resources which he thought would be particularly attractive to us. For example, he would frequently note to me Armenian stores and restaurants or inform me of an upcoming Armenian outdoor festival. I never expected to be treated with this heightened level of attention and care by any of these individuals, all of whom thus enriched my experience in Russia beyond any of my expectations.
AC: What was the most difficult experience you had living in Russia?
Serena: The most difficult experience I had in Russia generally was navigating the environment with my low-level Russian language skills – and by low-level, I mean practically non-existent, save for “net” and “da.” It was definitely a novel feeling for me, having to suspend my brain on an elevated level of “alertness” in order to remain cognizant of my surroundings – I couldn’t just operate on auto-pilot anymore! All of my previous travels had taken me to countries where I could at least speak the language at an elementary if not proficient level and had longstanding familiarity with the culture. This was my first time arriving in a country where I possessed virtually no local language comprehension and a very fresh, developing acquaintance with the culture. My lack of Russian language skills also had the effect of amplifying my concerns of committing a cultural faux pas, something that was consistently in the back of my mind. Surprisingly, at the conclusion of the program, as I waited to board the plane which would commence my journey home to the United States, I remember thinking that I would miss being in this Russian environment, where communication was an ongoing challenge and learning process, rather than something that came easily and naturally as it would back in Boston.
AC: What advice would you offer future students preparing to live in Russia?
Serena: What proved most beneficial to me throughout my experience in Russia with the PPD program was to approach it with very low expectations. This is a rather instinctive, perhaps cynical, tendency I harbor which rears its head prior to most trips or vacations – I’m simply not the biggest fan of traveling for prolonged periods of time and upsetting my daily routine! However, because I landed in Moscow with this outlook, I had no preconceived notions as to what form my experience should take. This attitude, perhaps ironically, enabled me to remain open to any and all suggestions and to push myself to say “yes” to all opportunities presented to me, even if they might initially make me feel uncomfortable or apprehensive (within reason, of course). As a result, I not only formed memories which I cherish this day, but I also grew as a person and learned to appropriately challenge myself and push beyond my own predetermined limitations. Consequently, I not only expanded my academic and cultural knowledge, but also my personal, mental, and emotional arsenal. I would therefore highly advise all future program participants to adopt a “yes, man” attitude in Russia, in order to reap the full benefits of this unique opportunity. This approach enriched my experience in Russia and rendered my time there infinitely more meaningful.
Serena in Russia while on the Politics & Public Diplomacy in Contemporary Russia Program (PPD).
Published by AC Study Abroad staff in July 2020.