Cigarroa, Isabela


Name: Isabela Cigarroa
Location of Study: Vladimir, Russia
Program of Study: The American Home
Sponsors: Bob Berner & Stacey Yusko


A brief personal bio:

I am a current sophomore at the University of Notre Dame. My hometown is Laredo, Texas, which lies on the Texas/Mexico border. Where I grew up has had a great influence on how I view my education. I have always had a strong motivation to volunteer and have been a tutor at the Robinson Community Learning Center for the past two years. I am also part of the Russian Club and Russian Ensemble. One experience that shaped my view on studying abroad was the summer before arriving as a freshman; I spent a week in New Zealand with a Maori host family. This short stay reminded me how important learning by experience is. With this, I decided I would study Russian and eventually study in Russia.

Why this summer language abroad opportunity is important to me:

My passion for the Russian language has flourished in my past three semesters at Notre Dame as a Russian major. At the end of my first year I attended an intensive summer language program for eight weeks at Beloit College in Beloit, Wisconsin. Currently studying Advanced Russian as a sophomore, I view traveling to Russia as being most helpful to gaining mastery of the language. The SLA Grant allows me to continue my study. This summer abroad study would better prepare me to take “literature in the original” courses upon my return to Notre Dame during my junior and senior year. In the future, I will complete law school and plan to work for the United Nations. As I am already a native speaker of two official languages of the United Nations (English and Spanish), achieving Russian proficiency would be essential for a professional competitive advantage in my long-term career goals.

What I hope to achieve as a result of this summer study abroad experience:

I hope to have a much better understanding of Russian culture. Learning about culture is one thing that cannot be fully understood in a classroom setting. Particularly I want to learn how to increase my reaction and thought process in Russian. As I am traveling to St. Petersburg in my Spring semester of 2013, I hope this experience allows me to learn how to act while abroad. This is especially important because in my four months in St. Petersburg I do not want to waste time adapting to my environment. In this sense, this grant will give me the greatest advantage for my future study in Russia.

My specific learning goals for language and intercultural learning this summer:

  1. By the end of the summer, I will be able to compose short essays in Russian on literature I have read in the original language.
  2. By the end of the summer, I will have learned how to speak with proper intonation.
  3. By the end of the summer, I will be able to keep up conversations without having to resort to a dictionary or switch back to English.
  4. By the end of the summer, I will recognize Russian grammatical structures and be able to more easily translate works into idiomatic English while reading.

My plan for maximizing my international language learning experience:

There are many small opportunities that will allow me to make the most out of my experience. The opportunity to live with a host family allows for daily interaction with a typical family and the ability to partake in the daily routine of a Russian household, giving me an understanding of typical Russian life. In addition, I am able to learn outside the classroom, with days spent at local markets and other city gathering centers to allow for conversation with native Russians in different settings. I plan to try and not speak English at all for my eight week program, to be able to come back knowing I did the best I could to improve my language proficiency.

Reflective Journal Entry 1: 

Day 1: As all of my trips go, of course nothing is perfect. Upon my arrival to Kiev, I noted that to de-board the plane, there was no jet bridge. Silly me with my one twenty-five pound bag and my other fifty-pound bag walking down the rickety stairs onto the tarmac. As I waited for the un-air conditioned bus to greet me, I thought to myself, “what have I gotten into?” As I tried to go through customs, there was a red and a green line. I picked the green line, and found myself exiting the airport. My first observation was that I was alone, without any other American student to join me. I looked for a NovaMova, the school I would be studying at, sign. After fifteen minutes of being alone, I called the director and she explained that the driver was stuck downtown and just to sit tight for an hour. This was impossible as I was so excited that I had arrived safely in Ukraine and was eager to explore. I strained my ears to catch bits and pieces of conversations between passersby. Finally, a man dressed in a soccer uniform approached me and asked if he could help me with my bags, I must have looked incredibly out of place in the busy airport. On the way to my host family, my driver was speaking to me in Russian so quickly that I was quickly overwhelmed and could only respond by saying, “please speak slower.” As I approached my apartment building, I could only think of how many people lived in this sixteen-story building that looked as if it had been untouched for over fifty years. My host mother welcomed me graciously into her home, and instructed me to wipe down my suitcases. I would have never known what she said to me if she had not demonstrated what she meant. My host mother fed me and showed me where my room was. The full day of travel had taken its toll on me and I quickly fell asleep, ending my first day in Ukraine that was really only about six hours long.

Reflective Journal Entry 2:

This first week in the Ukraine has been more than its fair share of interesting. I have up to this point, eaten horse sausage and fish soup for breakfast, tasted fermented milk products, and been filled to the gills with the constant flow of food that my host mother gives me. I live in a house with another student, a host grandmother, host mother, and host. My arrival to Ukraine was definitely unexpected; as I only learned I would be coming to Kiev ten days before I arrived. I am studying at NovaMova, a school in the center of Kiev that has a set of amazing teachers who are able to make four-hour daily lessons worth listening to. At first, I was a tad overwhelmed at my lack of understanding. It was impossible to understand the man who picked me up at the airport as I earlier described. I am positive that at this stage, after just eight days in Kiev and five days in class, I would be able to understand my conversation with the driver much better. Eating at cafes around downtown Kiev, helped me to recall my first year studies that focused on ordering and simple terminology. In my opinion, Ukrainians were very willing to wait for me to gather my thoughts in Russian and ask for my meal. So far, things have gone well in my language immersion and I look forward to my next five weeks here in Ukraine.

Reflective Journal Entry 3:

In Ukraine, there is a dish specific to the area called vareniki. I was under the impression that these were the same as Russian pelmeni, but was quickly corrected. The task we were given was to learn about a food and then order it at a restaurant; I went about my excursion a little differently. I first had vareniki at a cafeteria styled restaurant and then went on to ask my host mother about it. She had so much to say about the careful preparation of vareniki and proceeded to teach me how to create this delicious dish that Saturday in our apartment. I never thought about how long it would take to make these small cheese, meat, cherry or cabbage stuffed pasta pieces, similar to ravioli in texture, but different in shape and are eaten only with smetana (Ukrainian or Russian sour cream), as a side note I would like to add that smetana is extra sour and a lot more watered down than sour cream. My impression is that if you have something you want to eat with a pasta shell, you can make vareniki. The preparation of the dough was simple enough, but what is most important is the crimping of the ends of the vareniki. If they are not crimped correctly, the insides will fall out and therefore they are ruined. This appeared to be the true test of whether or not the cook knew what he or she was doing. In addition, I was given no cook time. I had to stand over a boiling pot of water and pick out individually each piece of vareniki as it rose to the surface. Hopefully I will be able to prepare these when I go back home, as vareniki is my favorite dish in Ukraine!

Reflection on my language learning and intercultural gains:

In short, my goals were to be able to have a better handle on my language proficiency in Russia.  I can gladly say that my six weeks in Kiev gave me the language opportunities I was looking for.  Living with a host family was definitely the highlight of my experience.   There is no better way to gain fluency as well as comfort while speaking than to come home after a day of lessons and put to use what has been taught in the classroom.  Living with a family helped me understand cultural references and taught me why Ukrainians act the way they do.  It was one of my priorities to come back with an appreciation for a completely different culture, and I have attained that goal.

Reflection on my summer language abroad experience overall:

I would encourage those who want to open their eyes to what the world has to offer through language study abroad.  It is one of the most rewarding experiences that one can have in a lifetime.  I have brought back appreciation for my life at home as well as an appreciation for very small occurrences that can change one’s worldview.My experience in Ukraine made me a stronger person not only by increasing my work ethic, but pushing me outside of my comfort zone daily, allowing me to test my own limits and surpass them.  I myself was amazed at my ability to adapt to new environments when necessary, and feel that this is an experience that would give everyone a chance to find their strengths and work on their weaknesses.  My advice to those who want to apply for an SLA grant, start early!  The search for a perfect program to fit one’s needs is never easy and filling out the application is not a one-night job.

How I plan to use my language and intercultural competences in the future:

I plan to use Russian in my future career, whatever that may be.  I am still growing as an individual and as a student, but have hopes to attend law school.  Learning a language in itself is a difficult task, but having the SLA Grant experience makes all the hours in the classroom well worth it.  I could never speak with ease before studying abroad and now I am confident enough to hold a decent conversation in Russian.  With this skill, I hope to be able to place into a higher level of coursework while in St. Petersburg in the spring.  The SLA Grant experience is one of a kind and definitely my favorite part of studying at the University of Notre Dame thus far.

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