Studying a language not only expands your mind, but it expands your circle of friends to far-flung lands and even closer to home, as alumna Randianne Leyshon ’09, modern languages and linguistics, and two other friends discovered as they studied Russian at UMBC.
Fate plays a fundamental role in Russian literature. Unexpected tragedies, reversals of fortune, missed connections. Somewhere Annushka’s always buying and spilling the sunflower oil – an unremarkable event which leads to a horrible death and sets off the fantastical plot of Mikhail Bulgakov’s magical realist masterpiece The Master and Margarita.
It was fate – in the form of an enforced switch of itinerary – that led me to study Russian in the first place. At the age of 14, I had volunteered to go to Nepal as a member of an international mission team. But the trip was canceled and I was rerouted to Russia instead. It was a plot twist in my own life that led me to spend five teenage summers volunteering at camps for underprivileged children and rehabilitation centers near St. Petersburg.
Those experiences (and the chance for more required travel as part of my undergraduate education) led me to apply to become part of UMBC’s Humanities Scholars Program – another auspicious decision that joined my path to the paths of two other ladies and fellow Russian students who’ve become a big part of my life: Sara Osman ’09, linguistics, and M.A. ’11, modern languages and linguistics and Christy Brandly.
Starting with Russian 102, all three of us shared the same language classes, and each of us had strengths and weaknesses in language acquisition that formed a useful balance between us. I was loudmouthed and reckless, not hesitating to speak Russian despite making mistakes. Sara was methodical in memorizing the many rules and cases that structure Russian grammar. And Christy immersed herself in the country’s pop culture, regaling us with contemporary words and phrases not found in our textbooks. We used to joke that none of us could speak Russian without the other two girls around for support.
After two years studying together, we applied for a fall semester abroad in St. Petersburg as a trio and were accepted. (I’m almost positive that Elaine Rusinko, our Russian professor and advisor, advised the program to take the three of us together if they knew what was good for them in her recommendation letters.)
Capricious fate struck, however, shortly after we arrived in St. Petersburg together for a weekend introduction camp – before we’d even met our host families – when we received the terrible news that Christy’s younger brother had unexpectedly passed away. Not only did Christy need to go home, but we discovered quickly that the bureaucracy of Russia’s visa regime would prevent her from returning to finish out our four months in St. Petersburg.
One of the last nights of Christy’s stay in Russia coincided with our first night in St. Petersburg. In a frantic and almost comical quest, we tried to see the cultural capital of bridged canals and spiraling church domes, mystical literature and topsy-turvy history, in a single damp night. The pictures we took are tinged with soft golden streetlights and with spotlights on churches and monuments.
After a somber goodbye to Christy, Sara and I discovered that our host families were only blocks away from each other. Fate had given us a small boon. We spent the semester enjoying a city that we had dreamed and read about together, but when we posted pictures on Facebook of us together, we tagged Christy in them as well.
Fast-forward two years to our graduation week. Sara and I lived together in a multilingual suite in Harbor Hall. Christy had transferred to St. Mary’s College of Maryland after her brother’s death, but she still traveled up to UMBC almost every weekend. Sometime during the last week of classes the three of us wandered around campus, visiting professors and reminiscing. That day, the three of us made a pact that in three years we would find our way back to Russia or the former Soviet Union. (Sara was engaged to another UMBC student who was Kazakh, so we decided that Kazakhstan had to count.)
Over that next three years, we missed our days at UMBC but were on track to accomplish our goals: Sara and I both finished graduate school; she stayed at UMBC and I graduated from the University of Oregon. Christy was writing her thesis at the University of Chicago. Yet we didn’t forget our promise – and finally we had the opportunity to make it happen. Sara received a staff position teaching English at a prestigious university in Kazakhstan; Christy won a Boren Fellowship to research her thesis for a year in Vladivostok; and I received a Fulbright Fellowship to teach English in one of Russia’s ethnic republics.
To top it all off, a special event brought us all together again before we scattered to the far reaches of the Russian-speaking world. Sara married Karim Yergaliyev ’09, business technology administration, and the three of us were reunited at the ceremony to celebrate both the wedding and our own vow to return together.
Our return to Russia and Kazakhstan as a trio has been even more of education. I discovered that I am not cut out to be a teacher, but my passion for writing about Russia has led to writing essays and stories about the country and its culture. Sara’s using her love of grammar to teach English and to take a stab at learning Kazakh. And Christy finally had a chance to immerse herself in a growing circle of Russian friends, staying current with Russia’s pop culture and humor.
Fate saw fit to intervene a final time when Christy and I were able to synchronize our journeys home with a joint visit to St. Petersburg. On a typical shady summer day in June, we reunited on the palace square outside of the Hermitage – residence of tsars and a stage for the Russian revolution – and re-explored the canals and bridges and monuments we had so briefly experienced together five years before.
This reunion completed our abruptly shortened shared study abroad together and gave me the closure I needed to be able to leave Russia without knowing when I will return. We three girls haven’t made any recent promises to each other, but none of us doubt that with a good dose of fate and some hard work, we’ll end up back in Russia together in the near future.