Ecology & Study Abroad in Russia: Elizabeth Rolfes [Kezari Girl Spotlight #4]

Elizabeth prefers to take the path less traveled, currently spending her study abroad semester in Irkutsk, Russia. Read on to hear about her love for ecology, sailing, and adventures abroad!

Beach or mountains?


Favorite & least favorite travel destination?

Favorite: Lake Baikal (Russia) or Manuel Antonio National Park (Costa Rica).

Least Favorite: Honestly, I can’t think of anywhere that I haven’t liked. There have been some awkward/unpleasant situations on trips, but that stems from me not fully understanding the culture, not because a place has been unpleasant. 

Aisle, middle or window seat?

Window seat – I like to sleep by leaning against the window. 

Greatest travel hack?

I make sure to roll all of my clothes instead of folding them – they take up a lot less space this way. 

Favorite travel snack?

Roasted chickpeas!

What 3 items do you always have in your luggage?

  • I always bring my own utensils with me in a small fabric wrap so that I don’t have to waste plastic at airports
  • Shampoo and soap in bar-form so that I don’t have to worry about liquids at Security
  • My water bottle that can either keep things very cold or very hot

Tell us about your study abroad experience! How did you choose your location and how has it matched up to your expectations?

I am currently studying abroad in Irkutsk, Russia, in Siberia. I live with a host grandma here and attend classes at Irkutsk State University, where I am studying ecology and economics.

At Brown, I studied Russian for two years, and am concentrating/majoring in Environmental Science and Economics, so coming to study abroad in Siberia was a natural decision for me because I could combine all of these interests in one place. Additionally, I am a huge fan of ecotourism, and there are some amazing national parks at Lake Baikal that I have had the opportunity to explore. 

Irkutsk has matched up to the expectations I had about it in general, I spent a summer in Russia in high school so I knew what I was getting myself into. The only thing that has surprised me is that it hasn’t been cold here yet. I originally thought that fall would already be freezing but it has been like a typical fall in New England.  

What’s the greatest thing you’ve learned so far?

I love learning about little random expressions that people say differently here than in English. For example, instead of saying “clockwise”, I have heard Russians say “with the sun”. Another example is instead of saying someone is a “black sheep”, I have heard people say “white crow”. 

Anything you’d change about your study abroad travel experience?

It would have been fun to get the opportunity to live in a Russian dorm or apartment here with students. My host-grandma is amazing but I would’ve liked to experience the typical Russian college experience.

What do locals ask you when you met them?

Locals are always surprised that I chose to come to Irkutsk instead of St. Petersburg or Moscow and they always ask me why I made this decision and are surprised when I say that I came here for Ecology. 

Funniest travel story?

One time I thought I was going to a weightlifting class here but I accidentally ended up in a belly dancing class because the instructor spoke very quickly at the beginning and I didn’t realize that I had read the schedule wrong! 

You also sail for Brown University! How did you get into the sport?

I grew up on an island near Seattle and as a kid, I would always watch boats sailing by and wish I could be on them. I took a class when I was 13 and then immediately joined my high school sailing team with essentially no experience. I was super lucky to have an amazing coach in high school who encouraged me to keep sailing in college… and so I did!

What book are you reading now? Thoughts?

I am currently reading The Idiot by Dostoevsky in the original Russian. I like it so far, some people are just having a conversation at a foggy train station, and I assume the action will pick up soon.  I am learning a lot of new words from it that will probably make me sound like I’m from the 19th century when I speak here. 

Lastly – describe your dream life.

My dream is to work on international environmental policy between the US and Russia. I hope to be fluent in Russian and at least one other language (maybe French or Mandarin) and be able to use them every day to communicate with people around the world. I also hope I can continue sailing and traveling throughout my life. 

To keep up with Elizabeth’s study abroad adventures around Russia, check her out on Instagram @elizabethrolfes

Check out our other Kezari Girl Spotlights on bleisure travelers:

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