Friends Upper School student Ben Musachio ’13 and four others were awarded full merit-based scholarships to study in Russia for seven weeks this summer. Sponsored by the National Security Language Initiative for Youth (NSLI-Y), a U.S. Department of State, Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs program, the scholarships are designed to dramatically increase the number of Americans learning critical-need foreign languages. Russian is one of seven such designated languages. (Others include Arabic, Chinese, Hindi, Korean, Persian and Turkish.) Ben studied in Nizhny Novgorod, Russia’s fifth largest city. Only 68 students nationwide were selected for the summer Russian study trip, which is now in its third year.

Distilling a summer’s worth of memories about Russia into a couple of paragraphs isn’t easy. It’s made more difficult by my lack of one defining experience. Don’t get me wrong, the whole trip was incredibly memorable, but I can’t point to one day, or one conversation, that was absolutely “life-changing.” I never had that “Aha!” moment where the language, the people, and the culture instantly made sense. Instead, I was faced with my own ignorance and the arduous and gradual process of language practice, which eventually led to improvement. 

My daily teatime with my host mom, Albina, best illustrates this. A full-time physician, Albina still found time in her day to make me feel at home with meals, tea, and good company. After the school day, the café meal with friends, the game of soccer at the local pitch, and the long walk home, I would sit down with Albina and have tea. Time set aside for tea and cookies is a daily ritual for most Russian families. Albina and I usually sat down at 10 p.m. and just talked about whatever was on our minds. During the first couple of weeks, our conversation was very limited. She knew no English, and I was barely surviving with my limited Russian. She would talk; I would listen. I learned that Alexsei, my host father, loved fishing, and that my host sister, Nastya, loved dancing. Albina told me about her love of films, and the frigid temperatures of the infamous Russian winter. 

As my home stay progressed, I opened up to her at bit more, aided by my new and improved Russian vocabulary. Instead of just nodding my head saying, “Da Da,” I inched closer and closer to the ultimate language goal of fluency. Once I got more comfortable, I could describe my day, discuss whether or not I liked an excursion, and tell her about my family back in America. My accent got a little less thick, my talking speed increased, and my vocabulary diversified. 

Eventually, in the last week or two of my time in her home, we broached more complex topics like the Russian primary school system, the influence of the Russian Orthodox Church, and her days in med school. While I certainly couldn’t speak on equal footing about these heavier topics, I understood her views and she understood mine. I eventually became more and more brave and asked sensitive cultural questions, like “Did you see Stalin as a good leader?” or, “Why is the modern Russian government/police force corrupt?” 

While it was hard to see during my immersion, I later realized that my talks with Albina may have best symbolized my growth on the trip. I learned about the Russian mindset, Russia’s political system, and its culture. I found out how little Russian I actually knew despite five years of study and how difficult a language it is. The lower standard of living in Russia made me realize how blessed we are to be citizens of the United States—living in a nation of luxury and endless opportunity. When I say that this was a life-changing trip, I really do mean it. Going on a NSLI-Y international program will help you develop into a more knowledgeable, open-minded, and curious teen. For me, that all started with tea!