Reflecting on a summer studying Russian, living with a Russian-speaking host family, and hanging out with Russian-speaking peers, one student admitted, “This is the program that budded my love of the Russian language! Russian was an ‘all-right’ language until I went on the Pushkin Summer Institute to Latvia!” In summer 2015, 14 U.S. high school students spent six weeks in Daugavpils, Latvia as part of the Pushkin Summer Institute Abroad (PSI-Abroad). The Pushkin Summer Institute is coordinated by the University of Wisconsin-Madison Department of Slavic Languages and Literature and the Center for Russia, East Europe, and Central Asia (CREECA).
Designed for students from underserved, low-income, and minority communities, PSI partners with three American high schools: Noble Street College Prep and Pritzker College Prep in Chicago, Illinois and Anchorage West High School in Anchorage, Alaska. The Pushkin Summer Institute began in 2012 with a six-week summer program on the UW-Madison campus, providing rigorous instruction in Russian with the goal of improving students’ Russian language abilities, stimulating their interest in Russian cultural studies, building critical thinking skills, and preparing them for the demands of college life.
David Bethea, Vilas Research Professor of Slavic Languages and Literature and faculty director of the project, explains why he chose Alexander Pushkin, “Russia’s national poet,” as the organizing theme for the institute: “Russians refer to Pushkin as ‘our everything.’ His greatest poems and stories teach the reader how to think in new and different ways. He is considered Russia’s most ‘Russian’ gift to the world, yet his African ancestry on his mother’s side was instrumental in his sense of identity and in crucial aspects of his life and works.”
Beginning in 2015, PSI added an international component to the Madison-based program. Through funding from the National Security Language Initiative for Youth (NSLI-Y), sponsored by the US Department of State, PSI sent a group of 14 students to Daugavpils, Latvia for six weeks of intensive Russian language study. Many of the students who went on PSI-Abroad in 2015 were graduates of the 2014 Pushkin Summer Institute in Madison.
To offer the international component, PSI partnered with “Learn Russian in the EU,” which provides customized training in Russian language and culture in Daugavpils, a city in southeastern Latvia where Russian is spoken by the majority of the population. “The goal is to give students from the domestic program an immersive Russian experience abroad,” says CREECA Project Assistant Brian Kilgour, who served as a key coordinator for the overseas program. Fourteen students participated in the PSI international program: twelve rising college freshmen and two rising high school seniors. They lived with Russian-speaking host families in Latvia and were matched with volunteer peer tutors. They were supported and guided by a resident director, high school Russian teacher Michele Whaley, and by an assistant resident director, UW-Madison alumnus Roy Ginsberg. The students’ academic coursework pushed them to improve their Russian language skills, while living abroad provided many opportunities for cultural learning as well.
Brian Kilgour notes that Latvia is an ideal location to expand upon the multicultural emphasis of PSI. He explains, “Eighty percent of Daugavpils is Russian-speaking, but there are prominent Latvian, Russian, and Jewish populations. The city is very proud of the peaceful heritage shared among these ethnic groups.”
Students experienced a full range of Latvian culture including visits to the Basilica of the Assumption in Aglona; the Mark Rothko Art Centre and the Dinaburg Fortress; the Preiļi Museum of Dolls; and the cities of Ventspils and Jurmala. Within Daugavpils, students visited war memorials commemorating the Latvian Civil War and the Holocaust; learned fencing from the Latvian National Team; and made multiple volunteer visits to at a local orphanage.
Summarizing feedback from the students, Kilgour says, “The students enjoyed the cultural experiences with host families and Latvian peers the most. These people-to-people moments stood out as the highlights of their trip.”
Kilgour emphasizes the importance of melding academic and cultural experiences in order to prepare PSI students for college. “Through the Pushkin Summer Institute, both the domestic and abroad programs, students are getting writing and analytical training from the coursework,” he says. “But equally important for these first-generation college students are the cultural experiences of PSI, like living away from home and being exposed to multicultural environments, that prepare them for college life.”
When asked about the most important accomplishment that can be linked to their exchange experience, one student on PSI-Abroad enthuses, “I still talk to many of the volunteers now! These people are so amazing! The culture is different but we are all human at heart and still strive for the same things, no matter where we are!” Adds another participant, “I loved the personal connections I made with many new friends! It’s something that will stay with me for a long time! I actually hope to go back to Latvia to see them again.”