Tennis player stays in Russia to complete fall semester

Spring break 2020 created Alexandra Kistanova’s favorite memory from being on the Augustana women’s tennis team. The women took a trip to Florida for two successful tennis matches and a little team-bonding beach time. 

Meanwhile, in South Dakota, administrators were deciding the fate of the semester, the tennis season and the rest of spring for students.

Thursday, the coach called an emergency meeting to break the news to the players. What he told them left them silent and shocked.

The third match was canceled—along with the rest of the season—due to COVID-19 precautions. 

“It was really sad, and at first I did not believe it,” Kistanova said.

Those final sunny moments were the end of a lot for Kistanova.

Now, she couldn’t practice tennis, take in-person classes or be with her team.

This semester, the business administration major is taking her classes online from 5,500 miles away at her family home in Seversk, Russia.

Like many international students, she felt conflicted about whether to return to Russia or stay in Sioux Falls, especially with the possibility of classes restarting after Easter. On one hand, being at home with her family for quarantine came with the cost of being potentially unable to return. On the other, staying in Sioux Falls meant she had no idea when she’d be able to visit home.

In the end, she returned to Seversk in March.

“To be honest, all my best friends are also at home now,” Kistanova said. “They could not go back, so basically we’re all in the same situation.”

Until September, she held out hope that she might be able to return this semester, checking the U.S. Embassy website daily. 

Many people in Russia also hoping to get to the United States rushed to the embassy after it reopened with tightly restricted operations in August, and Kistanova couldn’t get an appointment to renew her yearly visa that allows her to study in the U.S. 

That put her days of late night practices with the team are on hold.

While her teammates on-campus make snapchat group plans and practice together, Kistanova has no outlet for her tennis skills at home.

“Sometimes I have the chance to practice and to play tennis, but it’s a very rare opportunity,” Kristanova said.

Kistanova said COVID-19-related restrictions are stricter in Russia than in South Dakota, so indoor public sports facilities are closed. And it’s been too rainy to practice outdoors.

Private facilities are reserved for students of “sports schools” like the one Kistanova graduated from before coming to Augie.

Tennis can’t exactly be played in her family’s living room.

That means the only way for Kistanova to get practice time is to get special permissions from her former coach. 

Being on Augie’s team involves community, but in Russia, she practices alone. 

“I think I just miss the team spirit and the support,” Kistanova said.

Valeriya Monko, also from Russia, was supposed to join the Augustana tennis team as a first year student, but she also ended up taking this semester’s classes from abroad.

In the 2019-2020 tennis season, Kistanova achieved an 11-0 singles record and 7-0 in conference play, according to GoAugie. She also received player 

of the week honors. She’s one of three NSIC athletes with a perfect NSIC record.

Sophomore Kelana De Ruyter met Kristanova in their history-based First Year Seminar, and they studied and edited essays together often in the library. After countless late night study sessions trying to decode and explain the U.S. Constitution, they decided to be roommates in Granskou Hall their sophomore year. 

But now that fall has come, De Ruyter, who is used to living with lots of people, finds herself alone in the dorm. 

They snapchat every once in a while, but of course, it’s nothing like sharing a room, meal times and study sessions together.

De Ruyter describes Kristanova as passionate about both tennis and her studies. That shared academic vigor is one reason they became good friends.

As the fall semester ended last year, three of De Ruyter and Kistanova’s exchange-student friends were preparing to return home. The group of nine friends decided to go to Falls Park and enjoy the lights and fresh air.

De Ruyter was the only one with both a car and a U.S. driver’s license. 

So De Ruyter, Kistanova and their friends squeezed into her car to get to Falls Park, walked around and took plenty of photos. 

For continuing friendships and attending classes, a 12-hour time difference between Sioux Falls and Seversk isn’t ideal. 

“I just tell everyone that I study in the U.S., but I’m still at home and that’s so weird,” Kistanova said. “That’s not what I wanted when I applied for a university in America.” 

Imagine doing homework in the morning, catching up on sleep in the afternoon, and waking up for class after sunset. For the night owl personality, it fits well.

Augie’s typical midnight deadlines translate to noon for Kistanova’s homework. 

Sioux Falls sleeps during her afternoons, so she has that time mostly free.

Then, she starts accounting, statistics, English and art history classes at 9 p.m. and continues synchronized learning until 1 a.m. She sleeps for a little while, and then the cycle starts all over again.

De Ruyter said that Kistanova has always been great at balancing her busy schedule, so it’s no surprise she’s adjusting to this curveball well.

Overall, Kistanova said classes are going well, but it’s still awkward to be the only face showing up on Zoom.

Kistanova said her extended stay in Russia has one unexpected benefit. She’s made quarantine the perfect time to get her driver’s license, which is a more difficult and lengthy process than in the U.S. 

“Here you have to go to driving school for three months and take like four exams in the police department,” Kistanova said.

Lessons in driving and theory of driving are also required.

Being 5,500 miles away also meant she couldn’t work at her intended jobs. Kistanova was going to begin working at the Elmen right after spring break. 

She interviewed again to work there this fall but again lost this opportunity when it became apparent she wouldn’t be able to obtain her visa to return. 

Also, she was also planning to be an Augustana Cultural ambassador this August during the international students orientation. 

“However, again, I lost the opportunity to meet a lot of new people,” Kistanova said. 

She said after the initial adjustment to the unexpected situation, she’s gotten used to being at home again.

“Now, I can’t even imagine that several months ago I was in the U.S.,” Kistanova said. “Now sometimes I’m thinking, well, maybe it was just a dream because it was my freshman year, and I did not expect it to end like that.”

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