Student Spotlight: Kurtis Yan

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We talked with Kurtis Yan, a student from the Political Science department at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). Kurtis has focused his studies on Russian language, culture, and politics, and studied abroad in the summer of 2022 in Almaty, Kazakhstan. This year Kurtis received the  Excellence in Russian, East European, and Eurasian Languages and Cultures Award from the SEELC Department. He also received a Boren Scholarship for the Russian Flagship Capstone year in Almaty for the 2023-24 academic year, as a part of the Russian Flagship Program. Kurtis is highly interested in working in intelligence and international security matters, and he currently is an intern at the Wilson Center and for RANE, a private geopolitical analysis company. For the first half of 2023, he also worked at the Wende Museum in Culver City, which focuses on the Cold War. In this interview, Kurtis discusses his academic journey at UCLA and in the UCLA Russian Flagship Program. This conversation was held via Zoom and has been edited for length and clarity.

Kurtis, can you share with us how you first became interested in the Russian language and culture?

Kurtis Yan: My initial interest stemmed from Soviet and Russian history. I was deeply intrigued by the Soviet era, especially World War II, as well as the Russian Revolution and the Russian Civil War. That led me to study Russian in college, as I hadn't had the opportunity to do so in high school. After taking the intensive Russian 10 course during the summer, I decided to pursue this language throughout college.-.

How did you discover the Flagship,, and what influenced your decision to join?

Someone from the Flagship came to our Russian 10 class by Zoom. Once I decided to major in Russian, I researched the program requirements and realized a study abroad experience would help me reach a level of fluency that I might not achieve in a purely classroom setting. With my plan to graduate in three years, the Russian Flagship Capstone year seemed like a fitting way to spend a fourth year.

So you spent your initial year of studies over Zoom due to the pandemic. How was that experience for you?

Yes, my first year (2020-2021), was entirely over Zoom. That included my summer class, Russian 10. My instructor for the first half of the course was Elena Makatova, who also taught me in the second year. Despite the difficulty of learning a new language, she made it really approachable. She was encouraging and created a positive learning environment, even over Zoom. She also introduced us to Russian culture through music. Peter Winsky taught the second half of the course, and his teaching was equally enjoyable.

How many years of Russian language study do you have under your belt now?

I've finished three years of Russian study and am currently finishing my fourth year. My summer study abroad in Almaty last summer allowed me to fulfill the third-year Russian requirements. That allowed me to enroll directly into fourth-year Russian under Professor Anna Kudyma this year, And that has kept me on a path to reaching the capstone year by the fall of 2023.


Could you share some of your best memories of your time here?

The faculty and professors have made my time here truly special. The department is small and that has allowed me to form strong connections with the faculty, especially Dr. Kresin. She’s been my advisor at UCLA and has offered tremendous support throughout my academic journey. She's provided references for graduate school applications and other opportunities. I also appreciate the friendships I've made in the program, and some of my closest friends are people I’ve met in my language classes. 


How does this program enhance your major or make it stand out?

The ability to use Russian sources and read official documents and news articles in Russian is important. It’s essential to search in Russian too. Reaching this level of proficiency not only demonstrates the program’s commitment to critical language learning, but it also draws on character traits like dedication. The opportunity to study abroad and intern in Kazakhstan is also an enormous benefit. Working in a field related to my interests in Russian will be a challenging experience. Flagship participation has made me stand out to recruiters in applications for internships and jobs.

Have you been satisfied with the scholarship support you've received in the program, which seems quite unique?

The program has been very supportive in terms of funding. The Flagship contributed more than half of my study abroad costs in Kazakhstan in 2022. They also pointed out scholarship opportunities, such as the Boren Scholarship and the FLAS. I was fortunate to receive the Boren Scholarship for my study in Kazakhstan and the FLAS to cover additional costs. 



How has the event shaping our discipline right now - Russia's invasion of Ukraine - influenced your studies and research?

I've taken a number of political science courses on contemporary Russia, including one under Professor Anderson focusing on the Russia-Ukraine war. And for the Russian studies major's undergraduate thesis requirement, I focused on Kazakhstan's foreign policy with Russia. It was intriguing to see how Kazakhstan has, over time, leveraged multiple powers to extend its autonomy as an independent country, despite its strong cultural and historical ties to Russia. So my research this year has been largely centered on studying Kazakhstan during and before the war.

Were you given the opportunity to present your research at the undergraduate conference?

Yes, actually, it was part of the requirement for the major seminar I took with Professor Yelena Furman. I presented a condensed version of my paper at the 2023 undergraduate conference.

Let's talk about your summer in Kazakhstan. How was your study abroad experience? Did you enjoy it?

Absolutely, in fact, that's why I'm returning there in the fall for the whole year. The summer program was a great way to test the waters and get a feel for living there for an academic year. I really enjoyed the city -  It's very welcoming and much greener than Los Angeles, despite the smog and pollution. The city's simplicity and comfortable spots, such as the cafes and restaurants, appealed to me. There was this coffee shop, "Coffee Corner," a short walk from the university, where I would go frequently after classes. It was a comfortable place to do homework or unwind.  This year I look forward to finding more places where I can relax and have some quiet time.



Do you have any advice for students who are planning a trip to Kazakhstan?

I would recommend always being mindful of cultural norms. It's natural not to know everything initially, and locals or your host family will often help guide you. Keep in mind that there might be practices and mannerisms that are different from what you're accustomed to. For instance, your host family might communicate in ways you're not used to. There might be boundaries that you feel are being overstepped, like them telling you how to dress, what to eat, or what chores you can handle. But living with a host family can be a very rewarding experience as it provides a language practice setting outside the classroom. It's essential to respect your host family's lifestyle and try to find a compromise where necessary. It's also interesting to note that in the outskirts of the city, such as in flea markets, more people tend to speak Kazakh than Russian. So having some knowledge of Kazakh could be beneficial.

What advice would you give to students just entering the program?

I would recommend taking full advantage of the tutoring offered under the flagship program. It's also important early on to integrate your primary field of study with the Russian language. Working with the current flagship tutor, Katya, on my undergraduate thesis was a truly rewarding experience, particularly in presenting and writing it all in Russian. It's also useful to find Russian language resources outside the classroom and engage with them as much as possible. This could be through social media, news articles, books, or watching shows in Russian. Personally, one of the easiest ways I've found to maintain my Russian outside of the classroom is through social media, engaging with Russian memes, videos, and posts.