UW-Madison, Kazakh students connect through new program

August 19th 2015
Arts & Humanities, Students
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Thousands of UW-Madison students study abroad every semester, and thousands more students from around the globe come to Madison to visit, conduct research, or enroll in courses. Ever wonder what happens when such globally-minded individuals cross paths … on purpose?

The UW-Madison Russian Flagship program, an intensive Russian language program for undergraduate students of any major, offered just such a program this summer.

To help prepare students for the Russian Flagship's high-caliber language goals, the program, together with the Center for Russia, East Europe, and Central Asia (CREECA), launched a summer language exchange between UW-Madison Russian Flagship students and undergraduate students from Nazarbayev University (NU), an English-language university in Astana, Kazakhstan. The project, WisKaz, gave students from both universities the opportunity to practice their target foreign languages, Russian and English, in an informal, stress-free setting.

In total, 26 UW-Madison students and 35 NU students participated in the WisKaz exchange. Students were paired based on their academic, personal, and other interests, and met for 30-minute informal conversation each week, with 15 minutes of the conversation devoted to speaking Russian and 15 minutes in English. Some students met with their partners online; others had the chance to meet in-person, thanks to an ongoing partnership between UW-Madison and Nazarbayev University that brings approximately 60 NU students to Madison each summer as part of the Visiting International Student Program (VISP).

Students expressed such tremendous enthusiasm that WisKaz was expanded even further to include more UW-Madison students with ties to the region, including students enrolled in intensive summer Russian courses, the Central Eurasian Studies Summer Institute (CESSI), and the graduate program in Russian, East European, and Central Asian Studies. WisKaz also began pairing CESSI students for an English/Kazakh language exchange.

Students on both sides of WisKaz praised the project for helping them to better understand each other's cultures, improve their language skills, and prepare for future study abroad experiences.

Yekaterina Pak, one of the VISP students participating in WisKaz, met with Russian Flagship student Libby Gartland for one to two hours each week.

“There are 60 of us here [from Nazarbayev University] so, usually, we communicate only with each other in Russian. So [here] I am in a country where the native language is English, but most of the time I'm in my [native community]," Pak said. "When I meet with Libby, it's really, really great, because I get to speak English with a native speaker … just walking around the city, I can learn something about Madison from a local."

Gartland, who is from Beaver Dam, Wis., and going into her third year of Russian, also credits WisKaz with helping her get closer to her language-learning goals.

"[Yekaterina] loved music, so she would have me listen to her favorite Russian artists," Gartland said. "She would also bring the lyrics so I could follow along with the song. We would then transcribe it into English together, so I could fully understand the meaning of the song."

Morgan Klaeser, a Russian Flagship student from La Crosse, Wis., spoke weekly with one NU student on Skype, and also met with another student on campus.

"On Skype, Regina and I talk about everything: books, things we like, politics, etc. I think we both felt comfortable early on," Klaeser said. "Since we Skype weekly, we can keep up-to-date on each other's lives and we have taken our relationship to the next level. Nazerke, my on-campus conversation partner, and I just talk like friends. We talk about travel and shopping a lot. I helped her buy stuff online and she consults me for sales and fair pricing."

For UW-Madison Russian Flagship students, interacting with peers from Kazakhstan is especially valuable, since they'll study abroad in the country as part of the Russian Flagship program. Eight Russian Flagship students, many of whom had WisKaz partners, are scheduled to depart in late August to spend the 2015-16 academic year in Kazakhstan.

"I feel a lot more comfortable [about] being there, knowing that I have several contacts and a glimpse into the culture," said Klaeser, who will likely go abroad with next summer's cohort. "After seeing the things that surprised them about America and American behavior, I have better insight on how to behave there."

Story by Laura Weigel, Russian Flagship Program