Nine years ago, a schoolgirl from Shanghai, Pan Shuishi, wrote a letter to President Dmitry Medvedev in which she told about her interest in Russia and in studying the Russian language. In an interview arranged for the St Petersburg University website, this young woman from China talked about how her life has never been the same ever since.
What prompted you to write to the Russian president?
In 2009, a delegation from the office of the Russian president visited our school. At that time, a meeting was arranged for all of us who were studying Russian, and at this meeting we could ask questions about anything we were interested in knowing about Russia. The whole group of us got to thinking: Why don’t we write a letter to the president? We’ll tell him about our studies, about how interested we are in Russia and how passionate we are to know more about the country. Maybe the delegation will give it to him? I was the class leader, so I wrote the letter and gave it to the delegation at the meeting.
What was in the letter to President Medvedev, and what was his response?
Back then, our Russian was still very limited, and we were able to express what we were thinking and feeling only in the simplest way. We wrote Mr Medvedev that there was a school in Shanghai where a group of schoolchildren were studying Russian and that all of us were really interested in Russian culture. We told him that we had been to Russia and had seen many interesting and beautiful things. We gave him our word that we would study Russian very diligently, and we also invited President Medvedev to come visit our school.
When he wrote back to us, he said that he was very glad we were learning Russian. At that time, two national theme years – the Year of the Russian Language in China and then the Year of the Chinese Language in Russia – were held, one after the other. He hoped that we would be able to take advantage of the opportunities this offered to develop a deeper understanding of Russian culture. And he wished us success in our further study of the Russian language.
What role has this letter played in your life?
To be honest, we hadn’t put much hope in getting a response from him, so when we did get one, it was a very pleasant surprise, and it gave me a tremendous boost in my continuing efforts to learn the Russian language. In 2009, I was in my tenth year at school, which is a critical time for a student when it comes to planning the future. Even though ours was a foreign language school, far from everyone chose language studies as their special field. This letter, however, acted as an “accelerator” as I was trying to decide on a field of study.
You graduated from a school that was affiliated with a linguistics university in Shanghai and decided to continue your studies in St Petersburg. Why did you end up choosing St Petersburg University?
When I was in school, we had a short exchange program with Russian schools, so I went to Moscow and St Petersburg. I was really taken by St Petersburg because of the cultural and literary atmosphere. But there was another reason – my favorite teacher at school graduated from St Petersburg University. She told me that it had a very strong philology department, and so it became the “university of my dreams”.
And thanks to my winning an international Russian language Olympiad for schoolchildren, the Chinese government gave me a chance to study in Russia, under its auspices. That increased my desire to study here and nowhere else.
In 2011, the first festival of the International Association of Teachers of the Russian Language was held in Shanghai, and Professor Liudmila Verbitskaya (the former rector and current president of St Petersburg University and also the dean of the Faculty of Philology) came to the opening ceremony. She also visited our school. In a conversation that we had, I told her that I wanted to become a student at St Petersburg University, and she gave me her wholehearted support.
Everything simply fell into place, and I was admitted to the “university of my dreams”.
Could you please say a few words about your time as a student at the University? Were you satisfied with your studies?
As I have already said, before I finished school I spent a long, long time thinking about my future: Should I stay in my hometown and study at the foreign language university, or should I go study in Russia? It was not an easy decision to make.
But after all these years, when I look back at the past, I want to thank myself for making such a decision. My education in Russia, more exactly at St Petersburg University, gave me more than just knowledge; it also gave me some precious friendships. I went through a really hard time in the beginning, when they didn’t understand me very well in class, and I was afraid to talk with other people. But my groupmates were very helpful. They comforted me and gave me a sense of confidence.
Something else I saw here at the University was how professional the teachers were – they go all out to share what they know with students and help in any way they can. I still remember very well how Ms Shakhmatova gave me some invaluable advice and also provided me with an opportunity to study in a group along with Russian students (for me, that was the key that opened the door to the real world of Russia), how Ms Lyubimova answered one of our letters at three in the morning, how Ms Salye invited us to her home to give us a more detailed explanation of what we were doing in class, how my advisor, Ms Kirichenko, helped me come up with material for my thesis on her days off. Such cases were too numerous to mention all of them. Their work style back then has had a strong influence on how I feel about work today.
I am much obliged to St Petersburg and St Petersburg University for these priceless memories.
Did you take advantage of the Russian as a Foreign Language program in the Center of Additional Educational Programs? How important do you think it is for foreign students?
No, I didn’t take the pre-university course, since I had already studied Russian for seven years at school and had more or less of a foundation in the language. In any case, it was good enough to begin studying at the University. But it seems to me that this program is very important and helpful for foreign students. After all, language is a base without which it is difficult to study, to communicate with others, even to live. I studied in the Department of Russian as a Foreign Language, and so I know the program very well. The method of teaching is extremely diversified: different approaches are used for different aspects and with different students. There is another point that is no less important – for foreign students, such a program not only trains them in the language but also prepares them psychologically, and it has a very strong influence on the attitude they will have to their further studies.
How did you feel when you received a diploma with distinction from the University?
I didn’t at all expect that I would graduate with distinction. I simply tried to do well on my exams. But I am thrilled that I have an honours diploma. At the graduation ceremony, it was Professor Verbitskaya who presented me with my diploma. She remembered me and congratulated me. I was ecstatic, of course, and at the same time deeply moved. But how time works its magic is incredible – it is hard to believe how quickly those four years flew by.
You are now working as a translator and teaching. Do you have any plans to continue your relationship with St Petersburg University?
I really miss St Petersburg (it is already like a second hometown for me), my friends and our university, so I really hope that I will be able to go back there to study or work or simply walk around the city and get together with my friends. And if, in the future, I have a chance to continue my studies, St Petersburg University will be my first choice.