From Russia with love: FDU student Elona Bilovol studies abroad

Elona MSU

Above, FDU student Elona Bilovol at Moscow State University in Russia. (Photos courtesy of Bilovol)

By Kenna Caprio

Originally, she planned to study abroad in France. Russia wasn’t even in contention. Then Elona Bilovol had a series of conversations with an acquaintance that changed the course of her undergraduate studies, setting her on a path to study abroad in Russia. Prior to their discussions, Bilovol didn’t even know study abroad in Russia was a possibility.

Working with her academic advisors in the Silberman College of Business, Bilovol structured her course load carefully each semester so that she could spend her final one abroad in Moscow. She’ll graduate in September 2015 with a B.S. in finance and she’s already accepted a job at GE in Energy Financial Services, headquartered in Stamford, Conn.

“Studying abroad demonstrates that you are not afraid to put yourself out of your comfort zone, welcome being challenged, and are able to adapt to new situations. These things are valuable to employers,” says Bilovol, of Cherry Hill, N.J. “Having more life experience, especially from living abroad, makes you think differently and can lead to creative thinking and problem solving.”

St. Basil’s CathedralWith guidance from the Office of Study Abroad at the Florham Campus, Bilovol sought out and applied to a program at Moscow State University. She enrolled in literature, political economics, communications and history courses, half of which were taught in Russian, the other half in English.She didn’t take any multiple-choice or many written exams in her classes abroad — assessed instead through oral exams, which are common at the renowned Moscow State University, and throughout Russia.

On her first night in Moscow, Bilovol visited the famous Red Square. Here she's standing in front St. Basil’s Cathedral, one of Russia's most iconic buildings.

“On exam day, students enter into the classroom one by one and answer the professor’s questions orally. For written work, students could be required to hand in a semester-long dissertation to present and defend,” Bilovol says. She also notes that faculty can post all grades publicly, so students can measure their progress against the progress of their peers.

“Being from Ukraine and already fluent in Russian, has made this a very fulfilling experience because I already had an understanding of the culture,” she adds.

That Ukranian heritage made witnessing the ongoing conflict between Ukraine and Russia and renewed tensions between the United States and Russia even more personal.

“It’s been interesting to live in Russia’s capital as the current events are unfolding,” she says. “Many Russians like Americans, but may not agree with American geopolitics. I’ve noticed that foreigners are treated well in Russia and Russians are willing to help them.”

Bilovol continues: “I’ve seen just how much bias and distortion of information is in the media on both sides, which is extraordinary. It’s important to reason and think critically, both in and out of the classroom.”

At FDU, Bilovol honed her cultural interests with trips into New York City to attend the theater and frequent museums. As a resident assistant, she coordinated trips to museums on Museum Mile, which includes the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, Cooper Hewitt, National Design Museum, the Jewish Museum and more.

Bolshoi TheaterSt. Petersburg 1

Bilovol in front of the Bolshoi Theater in Moscow and Peterhof Palace in St. Peterburg.

In Russia, she took the opportunity to dig into her favorite pastime even more, with visits to the Red Square, the Red October Babaevsky chocolate factory — “a childhood dream come true!” she says — the Bolshoi Theater and Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow, and the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg. Outside of the major cities, she ventured to Suzdal and Vladimir, which she describes as “more provincial towns.” She even attended a ballet at the Kremlin in Moscow.

“Overall, Moscow is an incredible city. There is always something to do and see, and it’s beautiful and so full of history,” she says.

Bilovol returns to United States at the end of June and starts her new job in July.

“The most valuable thing I’ve taken away from studying abroad is truly understanding differences in culture. I’ve observed locals and foreign students and compared it to my own hybrid experience,” she says, of living in both the Ukraine and the United States.

“Understanding is important in communicating with people of different cultures and making sense of global politics, which of course impact our everyday lives,” she continues. “Living in Russia has given me an experience that can’t be substituted with learning from a book and has complemented what I’ve already learned at FDU.”