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Russia Trip 2017-2018

A select group of 14 Texas A&M International University students won’t be soaking up the rays at a Spring Break beach.  Instead, they’ll travel over 6,100 miles to Moscow, and St. Petersburg, Russia as part of the University’s “Reading the Globe Program.”

The students participated in the University’s Common Read and through a competitive application, essay and interview, have been selected to participate in the “Reading the Globe” study-travel opportunity.  The selection of travel to Russia was framed by the setting of the Common Read book for 2018, the acclaimed “A Backpack, A Bear and Eight Crates of Vodka,” by Lev Golinkin. Golinkin visited with TAMIU students and offered personal insight into his text and personal journey last October.

Students participating in the program include Isabela Barrientos, Marcos Enriquez, Briana Escobar, Kimberly Flores, Mayra Hurtado, Sergio Martínez, José A. Medrano, Aranza Obscura, Alyla Robles, María Graciela Rodríguez, Aaron E. Salazar, Rebecca Vela, Alfredo Velasco and Alan Villarreal.

Their time in Russia is highly structured with academic classes, guest lectures, related guided tours and a service-learning opportunity, said Dr. Conchita Hickey, TAMIU professor emeritus of the University College, which directs the popular initiative.

“Among trip highlights are visits to the Lenin Mausoleum, the Jewish Museum and Tolerance Center, a guided tour of Cold War bunkers, an evening in Gorky Park, tour of St. Petersburg, the burial place of Russian Tsars, a roundtable discussion on the Bolshevik Revolution with students at St. Petersburg State University, a trip to the Winter Palace at the Hermitage, and Catherine’s Palace,” said Dr. Hickey, professor emeritus.

Hickey provided some program history.

“Launched in 2008, the Reading the Globe program requires all First Year students to read a book focused on an international topic. This book is read and discussed as part of the UNIV 1101 freshman seminar curriculum, Learning in a Global Environment I. The Common Read Program provides the opportunity for discourse about issues relevant to students, and raises social awareness on a local and global scale.  We also share the experience with the City of Laredo as the selected book is part of its ‘One City, One Book’ program,” Hickey explained. 

To date TAMIU Reading the Globe student groups have traveled to Bosnia, Cambodia, China, Chile, Croatia, Ghana, Hungary, India, Poland, Serbia, South Africa, South Korea, and Turkey. 


Russa Trip Students
Left to right, front row are Aranza Obscura, Isabela Barrientos, Alyla Robles, Briana Escobar, Mayra Hurtado and Kimberly Flores. Second row, left to right, Sergio Martínez, Alan Villarreal, Marcos, Enriquez, Aaron E. Salazar, José A. Medrano and Alfredo Velasco. Not pictured are Rebecca Vela and María Graciela Rodríguez. 


Picture of Tami Summers

Ms. Tami D. Summers



Picture of Dr. Hickey

Dr. Conchita Hickey

Dean Emeritas

Senior Lecturer










Mr. John Hickey

Adjunct Faculty

Ana Clamont

Ana Clamont

Design and Brand Manager

Photographer and Blogger

Their experience will be shared right here with regular blog entries being posted as they are on their travels.

The group will depart Laredo on March 8, 2018 and return March 21, 2018.

To see more photos, follow the adventure on Instagram - @TAMIUreadingtheglobe 

Mayra Hurtado at London Heathrow Airport

Since it was my first time flying, I was awfully terrified of getting on the plane. I did some research just to know what to expect and, the more I read into it, the more scared I became. A plane ride was described by far too many sources as being comparable to a roller coaster. I'm not much of a roller coaster lover, so this information just made me feel more afraid. As we started getting into the plane, I became more anxious knowing that take off was getting closer and closer. Thankfully, the flight went by really smoothly and there wasn’t much turbulence when we were in the air. It was a short flight from Laredo to Houston, but nonetheless my first flight will be a memory that will last a lifetime.

Mayra Hurtado
TAMIU Reading the Globe Ambassador

Today was a roller coaster of comforts and discomforts. I enjoyed every step of it. It was an interesting adventure walking around the airport in Houston, London, and Moscow, observing the melting pot we had just poured into.

We made our way to Houston on Monday afternoon. The flight was easy and smooth. Once in Houston, we resolved an issue involving several missing boarding passses. This was completely necessary and not much of an inconvenience. We ate at Ruby's Diner, which serves pretty good Chili-Cheese fries. I sat there in silence taking it all in. I sat alone in a group for a moment and kept an ear out for all those accents and languages I didn't recognize. What followed?  A realization of what life was worth living. The interesting part of life, where things are different in every corner of your path. This thought wandered for the next 17 hours while we went to London and then to Moscow.

Once in Moscow, I realized Russians are not what I expected at all. I can't wait to find out more in the daylight.

Aaron Salazar 
TAMIU Reading the Globe Ambassador 

Aaron Salazar with Reading the Globe group

Alfredo Velasco in front of Russian architecture

My culinary adventures throughout Russia have so far been quite the whirlwind of experiences. From meat-filled pancakes to the famous Russian borscht, it’s an accumulation of tastes I had no idea existed. Today was our first day in St. Petersburg, and for lunch we headed to a local cafe that specializes in authentic Russian pies — not your typical round, crust on the bottom creation — but fresh pastry dough stuffed with either a sweet or a savory filling. The offerings ranged from rabbit with mushrooms, salmon with broccoli, to cherry, apple and loganberry (a tart berry found only in northern Europe). I chose salted herring, a white fish which oddly enough with the pie crust, tasted much like the sushi we would find in our local HEB aisle. The best part however was tasting the pies of everyone around me as we were all sharing the experience of Russian cuisine together, giving our thoughts on each dish. One peculiar detail I noticed is that all of our food was cold, almost like a deli sandwich cold, and our drinks were room temperature. We quickly found out Russians don't pair ice with their drinks unless one specifically requests it. Makes sense given the fact they live in such a frigid part of the world but it still left me confused as to why they wouldn’t want a nice warm pie. Nevertheless, we left only crumbs.

Alfredo Velasco 
TAMIU Reading the Globe Ambassador 

 Russian cuisine

Today, we embarked on a journey that will undoubtedly remained ingrained in our minds. As the freezing snow fell from the sky, obscured by the clouds and fog, the gorgeous Winter Palace emerged in the distance. This was a moment that a camera could not properly capture. This perfect moment, this remarkable scene, was one we would never forget. As gorgeous as the structure is architecturally, its true value rests in the rich historical artifacts that lay inside. The Winter Palace is the largest museum in the world. From art, to architecture, to weapons of war, all can be found here. The sheer amount of knowledge disseminated was simultaneously overwhelming and riveting. There was so much to learn in such little time. We discussed some of history's most fascinating and influential people such as Catherine the Great, Leonardo da Vinci, and Voltaire. One of the most interesting aspects of our visit was learning of Empress Catherine the Great; her perspectives were truly deserving of study. She is a true example of what a great ruler should aspire to be. The lavish design of the interior may make it the most aethestically gorgeous marvel on earth. The gold-leaf on wood blended with reds, whites, and blues. The Winter Palace is the epitome of the Russian imperial era. This experience will remain with each witness for a life time. While we were a meager 18 of the 200,000 visitors the Winter Palace receives yearly, the knowledge and memories we gained are incalculable.

Alex Medrano 
TAMIU Reading the Globe Ambassador

Winter Palace

After a very long and very cold day in Moscow, we boarded a train that would take us to our second city of the trip — St. Petersburg! This had to be everyone’s first over night train ride. We were excited of course and curious as to what to expect. Tickets in hand, we lugged our huge suitcases down a rather narrow hallway. So, size matters. Our cabin was every bit of eight feet long and five feet wide. There were four girls, four large suitcases, various carry on and no space! With a bit of imagination, a lot of cramming and even more patience we settled in. The train service included goodies such as slippers, a bottle of water, a candy bar, and toothbrush. Each bunk was equipped with comfy linens and fluffy pillows. It was for sure a night to never forget full of laughter and conversations with my new family. We finally fell asleep around 3 A.M, lulled by the smooth rhythm of the train tracks. Morning came all too soon, and with it more chaos. But that’s a story for another day. 

Brianna Escobar 
TAMIU Reading the Globe Ambassador 

Brianna Escobar and fellow trip mates on Russian train

We have been to many different historical sites here in Russia, all of them with great significance to country’s history. Nonetheless, the one that touched me the most was Red Square. Readings and images simply do not do justice to this place. I personally found it beautiful all around. And I do mean all around. The square is bounded by red stone walls and churches — at least four churches. This made it attractive to me as Red Square is typically associated with Communism and a dearth of religion. The Kremlin is definitely a sight to see — the onion domes, the bright colors, the original architecture, simply overpowers any preconception one could have about it. Though we could not go in (a familiar phrase- “No!”) we did get to see Lenin’s Mausoleum. I found it curious that the Russian government would still exhibit such a person for public enjoyment. St. Basil’s Cathedral right next to the Kremlin is both majestic and a way to reaffirm this country’s spirituality following the Soviet times. Visiting Red Square should be on everyone’s bucket list. I really thank TAMIU for making this possible for me.

Sergio Martinez 
TAMIU Reading the Globe Ambassador

RTG Group at the Red Square

Alan Villarreal at the Moscow Choral Synagogue

Our visit to the Moscow Choral Synagogue was a short yet highly rewarding experience. Being a person who greatly esteems the culture of Israel, my joy was full as we entered this authentic house of worship. The men in our group were handed complementary kippahs to wear on our heads as we entered the holy sanctuary, instantly increasing my enthusiasm. When I've read about events taking place in a synagogue in the Bible, I had imagined them to be simple and quaint, placing more emphasis on the Scriptures rather than the setting. Therefore, I was pleasantly surprised to view this synagogue's focus on elegant decor and intricate interior design. Even so, the contrasting Edenic paintings of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil and the Tree of Life; the walls interlaced with Hebrew Scriptures and prayers; and the pastel color schemes that characterized the room enhanced the atmosphere, making it appear heavenly. We engaged in inquiry with one of the synagogue rabbis; he shared the synagogue's history, which had its founding in 1891. Interestingly, he explained how this was the only synagogue allowed to operate during the Soviet period in Moscow—an attempt by the government to appear more tolerant and less antisemitic. Although we were not privy hearing the men's acapella choir (from which the synagogue derives its name), the experience was personally enriching, helping me view the Jewish faith with greater regard. Furthermore, a visit to the gift shop enabled me to add one more kippah to my collection, and I left feeling greatly blessed. 🕍🔯����

Alan Villarreal 
TAMIU Reading the Globe Ambassador 

Stereotypes. What is a stereotype? According to the dictionary, a stereotype is a widely held but fixed and oversimplified image or idea of a particular type of person or thing. We tend to use these stereotypes as we try to make meaning and create understanding of other cultures, other people— most anything foreign to ourselves.  But are stereotypes real?  Are they useful? Are they harmful? This afternoon, we were able to meet with our Russian peers at university in St. Petersburg. In groups of four — 2 Russians, 2 Americans —we discussed the topic of typical American and Russian stereotypes. Of course, it is easy to assume and believe these stereotypes, such as Russians never smiling and Americans maybe smiling a little too much. But by the end of the session, most stereotypes were dispelled, clarified or the stories behind them were shared. I came to see how, in the end, we are all just people. These students are young adults just like us. It was enlightening and eye-opening being able to hear the Russian students' perspective on life and America. My new friends, Vlada and Nikita, recommended some Russian Soviet movies to watch and a few flavorful dishes I shouldn’t leave Russia without trying. This experience has definitely widened my view on many levels and encouraged me to want to learn more about the array of cultures in our world.. Now, I can say I have friends in Russia, and Vlada and Nikita have friends from America. Borders and boundaries set limits, but crossing them brings us together as a human race.

Isabela Barrientos 
TAMIU Reading the Globe Ambassador

Isabela Barrientos, sitting amongst friends
RTG group with TAMIU banner

With Russia as my first international trip, I knew I was bound to experience something enlightening that would expose my hidden interests and give me a reason to become an even more inquisitive individual. I was also in search of an experience providing an immense amount of cultural knowledge. That was exactly what the tour of St. Petersburg gave me. As we cruised through the city of palaces, we stopped by the cabin of Peter the Great; it was the first residential building built in St. Petersburg, and it housed the tsar from 1703-1708. This city is now one of the only European cities that has been able to maintain its first building. The preservation of the city allows it to be a mecca for cultural and historical landmarks. Keeping landsites such as the St. Nicholas Naval Cathedral  intact since the 18th century allows for society to get a feel and really comprehend the background of the city and the vast impact history has had on it. Moreover, St. Petersburg embodies the importance of rich history. I’ve been inspired. There is so much to learn. A city that embraces its history and preserves its antiquity only gives future generations a chance to truly understand the ways in which our world has evolved. My eyes (and camera lens) experienced surreal moments throughout this tour of beautiful, colorful, inspirational St. Petersburg. 

Aranza Obscura
TAMIU Reading the Globe Ambassador

Aranza and fellow RTG ambassador, Alfredo Velasco

Through the biting cold we went, gingerly trying to control our skidding feet on the slippery ice, all for the glittering jewel that is Pushkin’s Catherine’s Summer Palace. This treasure was constructed for Catherine the Great as her summer house. Later her daughter, Elizabeth, lavishly added to the palace; theorists claim Elizabeth’s excesses lead to Russia’s bankruptcy. Inside we glimpsed a world full of opulence, luxuries and riches comprised of over fifty rooms, all of which have an individual and designated purpose (dining, dressing, waiting, dancing). One of my personal favorites, the Great Room, housed the most ornamental decorative gold-leaf of all palaces in Saint Petersburg. It was renovated after the Great Patriotic War when Germans invaded and burnt part of the palace. The intricacy of such architecture left us in awe; we learned of the Baroque style meaning that each and every piece was unique as per Elizabeth’s request. Due to time (not enough) and circumstance (on going renovations) we were only able to see a part of the palace — but that small taste left us hungry for more.

Kimberly Flores
TAMIU Reading the Globe Ambassador

Kimberly Flores in front of Summer Palace

The jeweled costumes, the elaborate set design, the grand stage were the first thing that caught my attention when we walked into the theatre to watch Swan Lake. I wondered if the dancers knew what to do and where to go, if they could throw in a surprising trick or two, if they seemed to be enjoying their part as a performer. All this was juvenile charm, but I was anxious for other qualities besides charm.

The dancers had unusual control over their movements. Their movements were unusually clear to the eye, and I could feel the difference of emphasis and urgency in their motions. I was not only watching charming dancers, but a dance. A story. I moved with the changes in their energy: taut or easy, active or passive, pressing or delaying, beginning or ending. Dynamics, space, and time, the dancers called it all to my attention and kept these three strands of interest going all the time. Those elements -- bodies that contract and hinge, sudden sinkings and instantaneous risings, sashaying across a crowded stage -- absorbed me, and now, it is an experience that will always dance around in my memory.

Alyla Robles 
TAMIU Reading the Globe Ambassador 

RTG Group outside of Russian theatre house

RTG group in front of Cold War era Soviet bunker

Among all the sites we had the opportunity to visit during our short time in Moscow, the Cold War era Soviet bunker was most astonishing. The simple facade of the shelter keeps its secret well hidden. Inside, accompanied by our tour guide/comrade, we descended (and eventually ascended) eighteen levels of stairs finally reaching the rich history housed under those thick steel walls. It was mesmerizing. For example, I stood in the very command room where, decades ago, Soviet generals gathered to decide the possible fate of the world. I got shivers as I viewed the underground office that was built for Stalin to carry out his Communist agenda. It was the kind of feeling that is typically experienced through books or documentaries. Seeing history and historical artifacts first person makes one more aware of it. I now have a powerful knowledge of how our important our past is to our future. As the lights went out, the emergency sirens came on, and screams flew from our mouths. It was a surprise mock nuclear drill! Our eyes were opened to the fear that once paralyzed people on a constant basis, reminding us to ensure it never be felt again. 


Thank you...Marcos Enriquez
TAMIU Reading the Globe Ambassador