By Jodie Klein
How many flowers should you give a Russian woman?
“You must give an odd number, even numbers are given at a funeral,” says Irina Kostina, UI instructor of Russian language and literature, and developer of a course offered in the spring of 2009 titled “Surviving Russia.”
This was vital information for seven UI students traveled to Russia for three weeks, and arrived on March 8th, International Women’s Day. These students were the first of two installments of UI Russian language learners traveling to Russia as a part of a unique exchange of students and faculty. The remaining five students will journey over in the spring of 2010.
This unique exchange was born out of a two-year grant from the Fund for the Improvement of Postsecondary Education (FIPSE) that serves as the first joint funding venture between the Russian Ministry of Education and Science and the U.S. Department of Education.
Margaret Mills, professor of Russian and chair of the Department of Asian and Slavic Languages and Literatures, and principal investigator for the project, sees this new cooperative relationship as an indicator of the reemergence of Russian as a strategic language, the U.S. initiative to improve international education, and the desire from both countries to promote understanding among their peoples.
The goal of the program is to bolster international cooperation by exchanging advanced language students and expert teachers as well as increasing the number of U.S. professionals with specialized Russian language proficiency.
According to Mills, the department received word about the grant through a routine funding announcement, and though the deadline was not far off, they jumped in full-force and began crafting a unique grant proposal.
“We didn’t sleep for about a week,” Mills says, laughing at the memory.
Partnering with the University of Northern Iowa, UI proposed designing an intensive Russian language program with Russian testing standards. Now, since receiving the award, the department has been able to accumulate a small library of Russian textbooks, and an increasingly growing number of students who are well prepared according to Russian testing standards.
The grant was written with one of the pre-selected Russian universities in mind: the Plekhanov Russian Academy of Economics in Moscow. Plekhanov is the largest higher education institution in economics in Russia today.
Plekhanov benefited from the exchange by sending faculty and undergraduate students to UNI in March of 2009 for seminars on economics taught by UNI faculty. In March of 2010, faculty members will travel over again for intensive seminars on teaching content-based classes in English at The University of Iowa.
UI, the only Midwestern school to receive the grant, was likely awarded the prize based on their strong reputation in international affairs and educational exchange, as well as the unique plan to include Russian textbooks in their teaching.
The students, all Russian majors, have undergone rigorous preparation, with both intensive language and cultural training. The unique course titled “Surviving Russian” took place during winter break and consisted of 90 hours of study within three weeks.
Designed and taught by Kostina, this course was a key aspect of UI’s grant proposal that made their program uniquely thorough. This course also makes the exchange facet exceedingly more valuable for both the students and faculty involved.
FIPSE scholar and UI senior Marina Katsnelson’s family is Russian, and prior to this intensive course she would communicate with them half in English and half in Russian. She said the rigorous schedule of having a test every morning pushed her to improve in a short period of time.
“I speak a lot more freely now. My family complimented me after our winter session,” Katsnelson said.
For many of the FIPSE scholars, this opportunity affords them their first trip to Russia after many years of study.
“At first it didn’t really set in [that I would be going to Russia]. I still feel like I don’t know what to expect, no matter how much they tell us,” said Michael Boland, a UI FIPSE Scholar, anticipating his departure.
Following intensive seminars in Moscow, the students take a Russian language proficiency exam, striving for scores that will allow them to enroll as foreign students in Russian universities.
“This program will help us continue to study Russian by making connections at Russian universities,” says Phillip McGregor, who hopes to attend a Russian university in the future.
Maxwell Rollins hopes to continue on to medical school and use his language skills to do charity work in Russian-speaking countries. Stephen Theulen and Brett Stout hope to use their Russian to secure jobs in the Foreign Service.
“The students are now seeing this as the first step to their future careers,” says Mills. “At first it was hard for them to have that vision, but now they are already looking ahead to how it will help them in the future.”
During their time in Russia the students spend an entire afternoon at the embassy getting formal briefings from program officers from the economics, political, and consular sections. Embassy officials also get the opportunity to do some informal recruitment, which will prove invaluable for students like Theulen and Stout.
Many aspects of Russian culture make the nature of this exchange vital for building strong relationships between the two countries. UI FIPSE scholars not only stay with a host family, but, along with UI and UNI faculty, also get to form and develop relationships with Plekhanov faculty over the course of years.
“Personal relationships are the only things that count in Russia. It can take fifteen to twenty phone calls or e-mails to accomplish something that one personal interaction could accomplish,” says Anna Kolesnikova, a UI PhD student and FIPSE project assistant.
Kolesnikova is excited to send off students to her country as “little ambassadors” making a good impression of how much America can invest in international interests. She knows their language skills are sure to impress.
“I was always impressed when a foreigner could just say ‘thank-you’ in Russian,” Kolesnikova says. “We Russians love our language.”
The 2008-2009 UI FIPSE scholars are Michael Boland, Stephen Theulen, Maxwell Rollins, David N. Brown, Phillip McGregor, Marina Katsnelson, Brett Stout, Katherine Otto, Aaron Jacobson-Swanson, Robert A. S.