Filling The Gap: A Year Abroad
Peter Armstrong’s Russian adventure
Peter Armstrong outside Peterhof, Peter the Great’s summer palace.
If you were offered an all-expenses paid, one-year trip to Turkey or Russia or Persia to study the language, would you say yes?
How about if you were 17 years old?
Many high school seniors can’t imagine leaving California for college, so the fact that Peter Armstrong, SVHS 2010, chose to spend a gap year in Russia is notable. And how it changed him is extraordinary.
A gap year between high school and college is an increasingly popular option across the U.S., though uncommon here in Sonoma. College admissions officers are huge fans of the option and Harvard University goes so far as to urge students to consider a gap year in their letters of acceptance each year.
Armstrong knew he wanted to travel for a year between high school and college and had planned to stay with a German family whose sons the Armstrongs hosted in Sonoma. But then his mother, Kristin, saw an ad in a local paper for the U.S. State Department’s National Security Language Initiative for Youth (www.nsliforyouth.com). This program pays for high-performing high school students to study specific languages not frequently offered at the high school level, including Arabic, Chinese, Hindi, Korean, Persian, Russian and Turkish. Surprisingly, no language experience is required.
Armstrong was deep in application mode for colleges, filled out the forms quickly, picked his top three location choices on a whim and promptly forgot all about it. But six months later, he found himself not in Germany but in a three room apartment in Kazan, Russia, the only male living with three generations of Russian women, and loving every minute of it.
Armstrong didn’t speak a word of Russian beforehand. His first night in Russia, he and his new sister and mother sat at a computer and used Google Translate to communicate. After that night, he learned to keep a dictionary handy at all times. Each morning he walked to a bus that took him across the river to the city center and Kazan University for three hours of daily language instruction.
“In the beginning, my Russian was very basic so I hung out largely with other Americans. But as my Russian improved, my circle of friends expanded to include mainly locals,” said Armstrong. “I figured it would be much better for my Russian to avoid speaking English and I think I got a lot more out of the program as a result.”
Armstrong said his biggest surprise about the Russian people is their passion for the arts. “They all seem to truly love and admire their best writers, composers and artists and any foreigner who has taken the time to learn about their culture instantly gains huge respect.”
At one gathering, Armstrong recited a poem by Pushkin and threw some of his SVHS drama training into the delivery. “They all loved it. I mean really loved it. They were thrilled that I could recite Russian poetry,” he said.
The prospect of traveling alone to a foreign country is no doubt daunting to most high school students, but Armstrong was well taken care of in Russia. He traveled in a group of seven American students and there was a resident director from the State Department responsible for overseeing the group and their studies.
As might be expected, Armstrong not only feels he has changed as a person and as a student, he has rethought his future as well. He originally had his heart set on attending Brown University but had no real sense of what he would study. “Last year, I had hoped to get in off the wait list, but if I had, they would not have allowed me to take a gap year,” he said. “This time I was accepted outright, but had an even more appealing option before me.”
Armstrong heads this week to Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service on an almost full scholarship. He had applied to a largely new set of colleges this spring and was accepted to Brown, UCLA, Berkeley, Middlebury and American University, and was wait-listed at Harvard, Dartmouth and Northwestern. But after his experience in Russia, Georgetown, in Washington, D.C., made the most sense.
So, while many students head to college exhausted from high school and get to college eager to slack off, Armstrong has recharged his batteries and is ready to get the most out of his experience at Georgetown.
Before heading home this summer, Armstrong traveled around Europe for two months on his own and met his mother in Europe to watch his brother, Nigel, compete in the Tchaikovsky Competition in St. Petersburg. Through August he traveled in Germany and Denmark visiting friends.
His long term plans have also changed as a result of his gap year. “I definitely want to us my Russian in my career,” he said, “and I am still working on my German.”
And, he added, “As much as I love Sonoma, I am hoping that this will help me find an exciting career abroad. Before this year, I had never really considered living outside the U.S., and now I can’t imagine not living and working abroad after college.”