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Bruin dives into study abroad UCLA Russian Flagship student Geneva Flores in the Medeu gorge of Kazakhstan.

Bruin dives into study abroad

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By Peggy McInerny, Director of Communications

UCLA International Institute, December 18, 2023 — Not every Bruin is ready for an intensive language program after their freshman year, but linguistics major Geneva Flores (UCLA 2027) is an exception. She spent her first college summer in Almaty, Kazakhstan, studying Russian four hours a day, five days a week, for eight weeks as part of the UCLA Russian Flagship Program.

Equally impressive, she applied for and received a Foreign Language and Area Studies (FLAS) Fellowship from the UCLA Center for European and Russian Studies as a freshman, which covered the cost of the program.

Flores is a talented linguist. She arrived at UCLA after having studied six years of Spanish and four years of Russian during middle and high school. “I learned that there was a Russian program that I could do at a high school that was close to mine, and that I could study two languages,” she explained.

“I had already taken Spanish for two years and I loved speaking Spanish, it was always my favorite class. So I thought, ‘I’ll just do Russian, too,’ mostly because I wanted to learn the alphabet. And then I learned the grammar, and then about Russian culture and history, and thought, ‘This is great!’

Waterfall in Butakovka, Kazakhstan, a gorge in the Zailisky Alatau mountains near Almaty. Her high school education, noted the Bruin, “basically covered the first year of [Russian at UCLA]. I feel that by doing that year over a long period of time, the grammar really became cemented for me.”

In addition to studying two foreign languages, Flores also developed an interest in African American English in high school, discovering sociolinguistics along the way. “I spent a couple of months reading about African American English for a senior speech and became more aware than I had been about how it is stigmatized as a dialect, especially in professional and academic settings.

“And I realized that the stigma has nothing do with any inherent quality of the language: it’s a social construct. That was so interesting to me; I began to see all the ways that our attitudes towards language underlie so many social issues.”

When it came to college, said the Baltimore native, “I applied to schools all over the country, and even some international schools. I wanted to go somewhere new and feel independent.

“When I looked into UCLA, I realized that it was probably the perfect fit. I wanted to go to big school because my high school was really small. I wanted to study linguistics, and UCLA is really a great school for that. And I had already taken [a lot of] Russian and UCLA had the Russian Flagship Program ”

Another pull factor was the linguistic diversity of Los Angeles. “Los Angeles is quite unique in the United States in that way,” she commented.

Intensive Russian studies

The UCLA Russian Flagship Program is a demanding, typically five-year course of study that produces graduates with professional-level competency in Russian. Students are required to complete two study abroad programs taught entirely in Russian: a summer intensive language program and a capstone academic year in which they take university courses in the Russian language, history and culture while doing an internship.

Due to anti-American sentiment in Russia, most students currently complete both programs at Al-Farabi Kazakh University in Almaty, living with host families during their studies.

Flores greatly enjoyed her summer in Kazakhstan, where she lived with a local family who made her feel very comfortable. “It was it was a lot of fun,” she recounted. “My Russian was at a level where I felt pretty comfortable communicating basic things. The language pledge — you promise to speak Russian all the time — didn’t feel that hard and was definitely very helpful for developing my Russian.

“I got a lot of exposure to informal conversational Russian for the first time, and I realized how much slang can differ from the formal register.”

Although she had previously traveled to Mexico, Ireland and Peru, Flores had never been to Central Asia. “I think Kazakhstan is a unique country, very different,” she said.

Scenic view of Butakovka. “One of the things I realized was that Americans have so much stuff. My host family had a lot less furniture and knickknacks, as well as fewer utensils and kitchen stuff. And I thought, ‘This is so functional. It’s actually more functional than an American household.’

“The textiles and embroidery in Kazakhstan are gorgeous; I really liked traditional Kazakh ornamental designs,” she added. “Even the Soviet architecture grew on me, to be honest, because through every single window [in Soviet-era apartment buildings], you could see different textile patterns on the walls.”

Now a sophomore, Flores is studying fourth-year Russian and plans to complete the flagship program in three years by doing her capstone year in Kazakhstan in 2024–25.

“I’m definitely glad I was able to do the summer program early,” she reflected. “Besides just the language part, I grew a lot as a person. I feel more confident interacting with others and able to take care of myself.

“I realized that there are lots of opportunities out there, I just have to find them. Going forward, I will take a lot more initiative.

“The most rewarding part of the program was the relationships that I built with people. We had language partners in the program — mostly Kazakh students who spoke Russian — and I found them so friendly. It was very interesting meeting and speaking with them, and I was able to speak Russian in way [that] actually expressed my personality more than I could before.

As for her future capstone year, says Flores, “I’m looking forward to reconnecting with people that I met, as well as taking classes at the university with Kazakh students, because the summer program was only American students.”

All photos provided by Geneva Flores.