As a first-year student Jen Belardo '17 decided to challenge herself and branch off from the Romance languages that she had studied throughout high school. She had an interest in Russian political ideologies and culture, and enrolled in an introductory Russian studies class to learn the language.
Soon, her interest in the language and culture developed into a passion for it, and she decided to spend her junior year studying at Smolny College in St. Petersburg, the second-largest city in Russia and a cultural hub said to have inspired authors like Dostoyevsky, Pushkin and Gogol.
"The city is kind of seen as this land of magical realism," Belardo said. "If you had read the novels, you were walking down the same streets. You were tracing the steps of Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment."
While at Smolny, Belardo spent each of two semesters taking four Russian language classes and two liberal arts seminars–one in Russian, one in English.
"They try to step away from the Soviet model of teaching, which is just a professor lecturing at you for nearly four hours," Belardo said. Rather, the classes are discussion-based and cover topics such as philosophy and political science, as well as language and literature.
"My first semester I took a Cold War class that was taught by a Russian professor, and we would get occasional lectures by an American professor via Skype," Belardo said. "So they'd really try to show us both sides of the Cold War."
Studying at Smolny provided Belardo with countless opportunities to immerse herself in the Russian culture each day. She devoted free afternoons to cultural activities like walking tours, park visits, trips to renowned museums and ballet recitals. Even day-to-day interactions with peers afforded her opportunities to deepen her appreciation of Russian.
Belardo lived with a host family, to whom she grew close–she describes her hosts, Yelena and Oleg, as "grandparents."
"I was terrified when I got there, [but] they were so sweet, and calmed me down, and gave me a lot of food," she said. "It was comforting to have these grandparent-like figures feeding you and worrying if you're losing weight and if you're warm enough."
In addition to the hospitality, Yelena and Oleg offered Belardo the opportunity to work on her speaking skills.
"I got constant language practice talking with them over dinner each night," she said, and she found similar opportunities for learning language and gaining cultural insight with her peers.
"Russian is a very poetic language, the way it's structured," Belardo explained. Through her interactions, she came to appreciate the intricacies of not only the linguistic structure but also the topics discussed.
"All my Russian peers would [discuss] life, and death, and love, and that's something that wasn't seen as taboo. [It] was something that was commonly chatted about. I think there's something about Russian that really allows for a certain depth," she said.
Now double-majoring in political science and Russian studies, which is a custom major designed through Davidson's Center for Interdisciplinary Studies, Belardo plans to enroll in law school after graduation.
Royce Chen '20