Russian Flagship Program opens unexpected paths

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"I went into college thinking I was going to become a teacher," explains UW-Madison alumnus John Lyell (B.A.'15, Economics and Russian). "If I told myself at age 18 that I'd be living in Russia right now, I wouldn't have believed it. At that point, I had not once been out of the country, and after my attempts to study Spanish in high school, I would have assumed that learning Russian, or any language for that matter, was unattainable."

It's an interesting observation from someone who is now enrolled in a graduate program in Moscow in which all of the coursework takes place in a foreign language. What caused this unexpected transformation?

Lyell Lyell

It began during his first semester on campus, when Lyell heard about an innovative new language program, the Russian Flagship, which had just started at UW-Madison, thanks to a grant from the National Security Education Program in the U.S. Department of Defense.

The Russian Flagship, an intensive language program open to students of any major, strives to take undergraduate students with little or no prior experience in Russian to a professional level of language proficiency by graduation.

Lyell was drawn to the program not just because of the various perks that are provided to students, including a free, personalized tutoring program and generous scholarships for overseas study, but also because he viewed the program as a rare and unique opportunity. For Lyell, the program delivered. In Lyell's words, joining the Russian Flagship "was probably one of the best decisions I ever made."

In fact, thanks to his involvement in the Russian Flagship, Lyell was introduced to another field of study, computational linguistics, in which he is now immersed as a graduate student at the National Research University Higher School of Economics. Lyell learned about the Moscow graduate program during the 2014-15 academic year, while studying abroad in Almaty, Kazakhstan, as a Russian Flagship student.

Lyell was intrigued, but nervous about diving into a new subject matter: "I was really scared to death, like, 'Oh my god, I don't know anything about linguistics!' But it turns out, through studying Russian, I actually knew a lot more than I thought."

Lyell applied to the computational linguistics program and began his studies this fall. Looking back, he credits his experience as a student in the Russian Flagship Program with preparing him for more than just the linguistic component of his graduate program. During his time in Kazakhstan, Lyell was required to enroll in a course at his host university, Al-Farabi Kazakh National University, where he studied the history of economics alongside native Russian speakers.

"Having that kind of experience and expectation of what a normal Russian classroom atmosphere was like helped me adjust to classes in my graduate program," he says.

It's all very different from what Lyell imagined when he arrived on the UW-Madison campus as a first-year student.

"Even yesterday, I was thinking about how strange my life ended up," he says. "Russian language and culture is now a defining element of who I am. I've grown tremendously through my language and cultural study, not only academically, but inwardly as well."

Story by Laura Weigel, Russian Flagship Program