Russian Flagship Program connects language learning to other disciplines

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Leah Shapiro's task sounds simple enough for a student majoring in biology: deliver a presentation on DNA structure and protein synthesis.

The only problem? Shapiro is a native English speaker, and the presentation that she was giving was in Russian, to an audience of faculty and peers at Al-Farabi Kazakh National University in Almaty, Kazakhstan, where Shapiro is studying for the 2014-15 academic year.

"I realized that even relatively simple science isn't so simple when trying to explain it through a foreign language," says Shapiro.

Shapiro is one of 12 UW-Madison undergraduates currently participating in the capstone overseas experience of the UW-Madison Russian Flagship Program, a federally-funded program that provides opportunities for undergraduate students of any major to reach a professional level of competence in Russian by graduation. The program not only strives to increase language proficiency, but also links students' intensive language study with their other academic interests and professional aspirations.

Students in the highly competitive Russian Flagship Program enroll in a rigorous course of Russian study on campus that includes year-round language instruction. Students in the program are provided with individual and small-group tutoring, tailored to their academic interests and goals, and participate in an extensive extracurricular program, including the option to live in a Russian-language floor in Adams Hall.

Shapiro, for example, had the chance to practice her Russian with numerous guest speakers, including the former Russia director for Human Rights Watch and a research scientist who specializes in public health and global environmental problems.

Russian Flagship students are required to study abroad at least twice, usually on a summer program in a Russian-speaking country, and then for an entire academic year during the capstone experience. In preparation for her time on the capstone, Shapiro completed a Russian Flagship tutorial in Madison on public health in Eastern Europe, working one-on-one with a Russian-speaking biologist as her tutor. She also spent a summer abroad in St. Petersburg, Russia, taking courses in St. Petersburg State University's Department of Russian as a Foreign Language.

These experiences helped prepare Shapiro for a course on human biochemistry that she took in Russian in Almaty during the fall, as well as for the professional internship at a public health organization that she will begin this spring. Shapiro hopes that her internship will give her professional insight into public health issues like HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis, and drug addiction.

The UW-Madison Russian Flagship Program is funded by a grant from the National Security Education Program in the U.S. Department of Defense. The program meets national needs for American citizens in many different fields who are highly proficient in languages critical to U.S. national security and economic competitiveness. The Russian Flagship Program is a collaborative initiative of the Department of Slavic Languages and Literature and the Language Institute, with the Center for Russia, East Europe, and Central Asia and the Doctoral Program in Second Language Acquisition, funded by The Language Flagship, a public/private partnership sponsored by the National Security Education Program (NSEP).

Story by Laura Weigel, Russian Flagship Program