Living the Language

By Mary Helen Randall

Never before has understanding and appreciation for other cultures and peoples been so crucial, so it’s with pride that during the 2011-12 academic year Rhodes marked the silver anniversary of its Russian Studies program. Professor Valeria Nollan founded the program 25 years ago, when the campus and the city surrounding it seemed very different. Six years later, assistant professor Sasha Kostina arrived, and a complementary and comprehensive partnership was formed.

Nollan, who was born in Germany to Russian parents, claims Russian as her first language. Kostina is Russian-born and holds dual U.S. and Russian citizenship. “We built the program together,” explains Nollan. “Our approach to the language is very intuitive. We both do what needs to be done and we are both very comfortable making decisions.”

Those decisions on how the Russian Studies discipline should be run are not ones that either takes lightly. “When I started in 1986, I knew that one person could not develop a language program alone,” recalls Nollan. “I needed help, and it came in the form of Sasha. The Middlebury Consortium brought exchange students here shortly after I began, and that’s how Sasha got here,” smiles Nollan. “There is a huge comfort in the stability of this program,” she notes. “Our students know we are going to be here, and they in turn are there for one another."
“It fosters confidence,” explains Kostina, who goes on to note that 60 percent of Russian Studies majors go on to graduate school to continue their study of the language and culture, and their acceptance rate is close to 100 percent.

It’s hard numbers like these that let Kostina and Nollan know they are doing something right. In fact, many things right. “We have a unique program: We compare ours against those at other universities, and what we do goes beyond the surface, which is why we have not only survived but thrived when some others just didn’t make it,” says Nollan. One of the distinctions, according to the two professors, is that they prefer to do fewer things in an excellent way, rather than doing too many things in a more superficial way.

But it would be a mistake to call this simply a “language” program. It is far more encompassing, and far more forward-thinking. The interdisciplinary, integrated program is a perfectly choreographed dance involving communication, writing, literature, art, travel, immersion, social media and cultural understanding, the latter being an issue of much concern for both Nollan and Kostina. “We have the opportunity to be part of the solution to the many misconceptions Americans have about the Russian people. Not all Russian elections are fixed, not everyone drinks vodka, the Russians are not our natural ‘enemies,’” sighs Nollan. “That mentality is so dangerous. Sure, these days it’s easier than ever to get facts, but where do you get understanding? Not just in reading online and having surface discussions; one has to dig deeper. Differences exist even in simple things, like not filling every silent moment with empty words,” Nollan explains. “That is a teaching moment. We as Americans are so plugged in and wired. In Russia they respect silence, and I try to bring that aesthetic to my classroom.” 

Says Kostina, “We target the features of Russian culture that are essential for an understanding of the people, such as literature, folklore, Rusian Orthodox religious philosophy, linguistics and music.” Nollan adds: “This kind of learning reveals a real gentleness and kindness, which are very touching and so characteristic of the Russian people. But what we both say to our students is, ‘Don’t take our word for it, go see for yourselves.’” 

And see for themselves they do. Many participate in a Maymester, when students travel as a group to St. Petersburg. It’s an experience that stands out for alums of the program, with good reason. 

One such student is 24-year-old Colin Johnson ’10, an Aledo, TX, native who graduated with a major in International Studies and a minor in Russian Studies. He traveled with Professor Kostina to her native city of St. Petersburg in 2008, with the aid of a scholarship through Rhodes’ Buckman Center for International Education. “My interest in Russia came from my fascination with World War II and naval history,” explains Johnson. “Russia has always been a mysterious place to me, and as I grew older I became interested in the Cold War and felt that we as Americans had yet to get a firm grasp of Russia’s history in the 20th century.” That fascination stuck with him, and when it was time to choose a college, Rhodes was the clear winner. “After one campus visit I knew Rhodes was the place I’d get the results and that Memphis was a place I could learn to call home. When I received a letter form an alumnus who practiced international corporate law in Japan, it was the icing on the cake. There was no doubt that Rhodes was the place for me to challenge myself, get out into the world and get a huge leap forward on my career path.”

Immediately after Johnson’s Maymester trip, Kostina assisted him in securing a Buckman Study Abroad scholarship to study Russian-European relations at the University of Tartu in Estonia. While not in Russia, the venture helped Johnson obtain a Critical Language Scholarship from the State Department to study Russian in Kazan the summer after graduation. 

“Both Nollan and Kostina were incredible instructors,” says Johnson. “With Nollan, it was the first time I’d been in a literature class since high school, and I loved being able to bring my knowledge of Russian culture to the table. I took all three years of my language classes from Professor Kostina, who inspired my passion for Russian as soon as I set foot in her classroom,” he recalls. “She is so knowledgeable of linguistics that she can help put you into the mind of a Russian speaker so that you naturally understand that world through grammar and syntax. I’ve spoken to students from other universities, including Georgetown, who studied with her for a summer and later said that she was the best Russian language instructor they’d ever had,” he says. 

Currently, Johnson is beginning dissertation research on Russian politics. “After my time in Russia and my classes, I was fascinated by shifts in population: migration urbanizations, population growth and decline,” he notes. With all that in his head going into senior year, he decided that graduate school was what he wanted to pursue, and it was with the support from professors in International Studies and Russian Studies that he says he was able to complete the applications and be accepted into a great program. 

Looking back at his broad range of experiences, Johnson knows he received superior training coupled with the real-world experiences that even the best classrooms can’t replicate. “The opportunities that Rhodes provided were exceptional,” he says. “If I hadn’t been able to study abroad so many times—which was a huge financial obstacle overcome by various generous programs—I would not have been able to develop a CV that legitimated my application to Ph.D. programs straight out of undergrad.” 

He offers this bit of practical advice for future modern language students: “While mastering another language is a worthy goal in and of itself, it must complement other skills, whether professional or academic. Whatever language you choose, combine it with training and knowledge of other academic disciplines or professional skills. Another language can create linkages to other cultures, countries and resources to reinforce your other interests. Russian has given me access to sociologists, artists and knowledge that I would not have had if I had not known the language. Mastery of other languages reinforces your other strengths and signals to employers that you can not only absorb massive amounts of information but that you also have the discipline to undertake such long-term tasks,” he says. “Take your passion for a language and go to where it’s spoken! And take your passion for physics or business or art! Then you have everything you need to succeed in the future.”