Fulfillment in unexpected places: why I’m a Russian major

Last year's Post Soviets from left to right: Nicholas Christenson ’21, Aisha Malik ’21, Professor Charles Arendt III, Mathew Au ’19 and Alice Woo ’21. Courtesy of Vassar College Russian Department

Once upon a time, I was a diligent high school student researching my college options, trying to gauge which school had the best program for what I knew I wanted to study: brain science. I’ll study either cognitive science or psychology, I thought, and maybe take some drama and music classes for variety and, thanks to my AP Spanish credit, I’ll be able to breeze through without taking a single language class. A lot of that did come to pass; I am indeed a Psychology major and I have enjoyed participating in theater at Vassar. However, when I think about the things that have most defined my college experience, there is only one possible answer: the Russian department.

People are often bewildered when I reveal that I’m a Russian major. They want to know why, they want to know if I have Russian family or something, they want to know if I’m planning on being a spy. I don’t know how it happened, I answer. Sure, I enjoyed Russian literature in high school, but I definitely did not expect my college career to be completely overtaken by the cyrillic alphabet and authors with rugged beards. You take a literature class, you decide you want to know what Gogol is like in his original language, you take Intensive Russian, you continue with Intermediate Russian, you apply for a summer abroad program, you spend the summer in St. Petersburg, you get hired as the Russian Language Intern, you join the Russian band. I don’t know, these things just happen!

I joke a lot about how the department took over my life against my will, but in truth, I’m so grateful to have found such a great community on campus. Still, apart from the people and the department events, I really found so much joy in just learning the language. What was particularly wild about Intensive Russian was that I could feel my brain changing. One week goes by, and suddenly a page of what looked like squiggles now becomes decipherable letters and words. I got to re-experience the same breakthrough that happened when I was five years old, and I felt all the same exhilaration. I know that not everyone takes as much pleasure in learning languages as I do, but I wholeheartedly recommend start
ing a language from scratch, especially one that doesn’t use the Latin alphabet. In the beginning, reading felt like deciphering a code, and I felt satisfaction each time I sounded out a word. I got to be amazed at my own abilities as they developed. Because you begin with absolutely nothing, you get to progress with leaps and bounds, and one semester later you’re able to recite poetry.

In college, and in life under capitalism, it takes bravery to try something you know nothing about. We’re averse to failure and that aversion gets reinforced every time you stress about your GPAs, or the “usefulness” of your degree or what others will think about you. Yes, learning Russian looks cool on a résumé. But the real payoff was the actual learning of the language. It was the tangible progress that made learning a foreign language so rewarding. When I’m doubting the point of my elite liberal arts education and feeling down about my piling loans, it’s been a great anchor. The fact that I can read a foreign script and experience authors in their own language is proof that I actually learned something. It’s evidence that college actually reshaped my neural pathways and gave me something new.

I posit the following: Doing something completely new is scary, but that fear is infinitely outweighed by the pleasure of making progress and the freedom of learning without the pressure to master. So when you’re thinking about the classes you might take next semester, I highly recommend you start something new. Maybe it’s a language class, or maybe it’s studio art or ballet or education or anthropology. It doesn’t have to become your major (but if you join the Russian Department, it probably will). Real language fluency takes years and years, but when I think about how far I’ve come in just three (not to mention how far I’ve gone—all the way to the banks of the Neva River in St. Petersburg), I know I’ve spent my time at Vassar doing something that is personally fulfilling and therefore valuable.

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