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A Russian Flagship student's St. Petersburg yearUCLA Flagship students Sydney Heller, Derek Groom (a Boren Scholar), Addy Tomova (a UCLA CEES FLAS awardee), and Dustin Chavkin.

A Russian Flagship student's St. Petersburg year

UCLA Russian Flagship students Sydney Heller, along with classmates Addy Tomova, Dustin Chavkin, and Derek Groom, are participants in an intensive program at St. Petersburg State University. Syd talks with Susan Bauckus (Center for World Languages) about his experiences.

[Russian] is so rich with expressions and quotes from literature and films, that only after mastering those can you really speak like a native Russian.

Were you prepared for a year in Russia? What still surprises you?
The faculty and Flagship at UCLA did an excellent job providing me with a strong and well-rounded base in the language. I felt relatively prepared for the psychological component as well. The program required every student to have studied in Russia at least once already, so the summer I spent here previously prevented that initial shock of being completely surrounded by Russian.

The two aspects of life here that still surprise me are: 1) the presence of English loan words and 2) the variation in conversational speech. I often laugh at myself, when I come across a word in the newspaper and look it up, only to realize that it's an English word written phonetically in Cyrillic letters. Although I did get a lot of exposure to Russian speech at UCLA, I still notice how different individuals sound when they speak and how many idiosyncrasies you can hear every day in pronunciation, cadence, tone, and so forth.

And what are you doing now?
We're in the second semester of the program and we attend classes every weekday except Wednesdays, when we have our internships. A typical academic day consists of an hour and a half of class in smaller groups, usually five students, followed by a larger lecture of twenty students, and concluding with one-on-one work with our personally assigned tutors.

I think this structure provides us with a good range of opportunities to participate a lot in the small groups, work with all the students on the program in the larger lecture, and ask questions relevant only to us during our tutoring sessions. I spend a lot of time in class, doing homework, and at my internship, but I also have free time to hang out with my friends. Saint Petersburg is such a lively city with so much to do that even an entire year is not enough time to see and do everything the city has to offer. With my friends from the program and my native Russian friends, I go to the movies, walk around parks, go sightseeing, visit museums and go to the theater all on a regular basis.

Which classes are you taking?
We have classes in phonetics, conversational practice, literature, writing, reading and film. During the first semester we also took a “direct enrollment” course from the courses offered to Russian students. Most students on the program signed up for courses such as International Relations, National Security, and Soviet Politics. I took a course in national security and defense. It was interesting to see not only how real Russian students interacted with university professors, but also with each other. It also gave me a chance to listen to lectures by a professor who wasn't teaching second language learners. At the end of the term, I gave a presentation in front of the class, based on a paper I had written.

How would you describe what you've learned?
I've learned so many new words, grammatical concepts and just generally about the language. What makes my time different here, though, and what makes the experience worthwhile, is that I am really learning how to communicate. What I mean is that of course my pronunciation and ability to understand spoken Russian is getting better, but I'm only now learning how to express myself in Russian to Russians. The language is so rich with expressions and quotes from literature and films, that only after mastering those can you really speak like a native Russian. Whether I'm discussing a talk show with my host mother or debating with my tutor about the modern tendency to spend more time on the computer and whether that is detrimental or beneficial for society, I feel comfortable communicating in Russian even while knowing that I can't fall back on English no matter how badly I want to.

Which of your experiences do you expect to remember the most?
The academic portion of the program is enjoyable and beneficial, but when I return to the United States and continue with my life, my brightest memories will be connected with the people I've met. Whether with my fellow students on the program or the Russians I've befriended, I'll never forget the walks through the snow-covered parks, across the frozen Neva River, throwing snowballs, staying out all night, and laughing hysterically at a stand-up comedy show. Russians have a very strong and developed relationship to holidays, and I'll remember the New Year, celebrating with my friends until the early morning and spending a night in a beautiful suburb for someone’s birthday, for years to come.

... and your plans when you get back?
Some people on my program already have jobs lined up, some are looking for internships in fields such as journalism or business, some are planning on entering master's programs, but I think everyone has one thing in common: we're all going directly back home to visit our loved ones. I plan on finding a job and a professional medium to use the Russian I've learned. I know now, more than ever, that I can confidently tell potential employers that I'm qualified to communicate in Russian and conduct myself properly in a professional Russian setting. But I'll look for a job after seeing my family!

The UCLA Russian Flagship Center is part of The Language Flagship, a federally-funded project to teach critical languages to high levels of proficiency. The Flagship year in St. Petersburg, the program's capstone, follows a rigorous series of courses at UCLA and summer study in Russia. For more information about the UCLA Russian Flagship, contact

Syd and Dustin blog about their experiences in St. Petersburg; visit Syd's Peter and I and Dustin's Year in St. Petersburg.

UCLA Russian Flagship Center