As North Carolina high school student Graham Shunk was wrapping up a virtual Russian course in August 2020, a journalist from the Russian-language television channel NTV-America reached out to invite him to give an interview–in Russian–for an article on his innovative research on the protective features of a fungus growing in the Chernobyl exclusion zone, a project on which Shunk has collaborated with scholars from Stanford and NASA.
The research, which has already been covered in Business Insider, CNET, and other media outlets, presents evidence that the Chernobyl fungus may protect astronauts against the harmful effects of radiation in space.
Shunk’s involvement with this project and his interview with NTV-America jointly highlight the interconnectedness of his Russian-language development and professional development.
After having studied Russian for two years in high school, Shunk was one of 450+ U.S. high school students to be awarded a scholarship from the National Security Language Initiative for Youth (NSLI-Y) to study a critical language during the 2020 virtual summer intensive (VSI) program.
Funded by the U.S. Department of State, NSLI-Y aims to inspire American youth to develop a life-long interest in critical languages and world cultures in order to become global citizens and professionals. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, summer 2020 programs that normally would have been offered in-country were quickly transitioned to an online (virtual) format.
Despite the change of format, Shunk appreciated just how NSLI-Y VSI is fueling his trajectory to use Russian professionally as an aerospace engineer. “Being able to converse with native speakers in NSLI-Y really got me talking about real-world topics, not just my hobbies or asking people’s names and ages,” Shunk told CREECA, which implemented Shunk’s VSI program. “The immersion experience really helped with my listening and speaking skills, which is crucial for interactions outside of the classroom.”
For five weeks, Shunk and 10 other NSLI-Y scholarship recipients participated in virtual Russian-language courses and co-curricular activities at Learn Russian in the European Union (LREU) for three hours a day. Initially, CREECA was recruiting a cohort of students who would have an immersion experience in Latvia as part of the six-week NSLI-Y Pushkin Summer Institute Abroad.
Although the program length and modality were adjusted in response to the COVID-19 emergency, NSLI-Y scholars maintained the motivation to take their Russian to the next level. At the end of the five-week program, one VSI student told us:
I have definitely blown my expectations out of the water! My Russian has improved so much and I have such a vast vocabulary compared to how I started this program. I can explain myself better and explain what I do often. I am very proud of this program and so thankful for this wonderful opportunity.
—A 2020 NSLI-Y VSI Participant
Their motivation and dedication were likewise observed by LREU instructor Larisa Romančuka:
Online learning is a huge opportunity, but also a challenge at the same time, especially if we are talking about language learning. Our students coped with all the difficulties! We thank them for their great interest in the Russian language and culture, for being active in the classroom, and for their motivation, creativity, and hard work.
So, what did this NSLI-Y VSI program look like? It exploited the tools of the digital classroom such as breakout rooms, the virtual whiteboard, an active chat feature, and innovative screen sharing. It included weekly presentations in Russian on topics such as hobbies, interests, and current events. It involved developing a cultural portfolio that reflected students’ engagement with Russian music, films and cartoons, and traditions and idioms.
The virtual programming did not forgo cultural excursions. A combination of Google Earth, presentation slides, aerial photography, video footage, and the talents of engaging LREU tour guide Janis Mickevičs enabled NSLI-Y scholars to explore and learn about a variety of cultural and historical sites throughout Latvia. They visited Church Hill, the Mark Rothko Art Center, the Daugavpils Fortress, military and Holocaust memorials from WWII, stunning medieval castles, and downtown Riga. Students learned new vocabulary and used Russian to ask and answer questions about these sites.
I loved the excursions that Janis put together for our class. They were very interesting and made the Russian lessons even more enjoyable. He presented good information and the videos that he made were great substitutes for seeing the real thing in person.
—A 2020 NSLI-Y VSI Participant
Students were especially enthusiastic about building cross-cultural friendships with peer tutors, high school students in Daugavpils, Latvia who were recruited and trained by LREU. They met for an hour each day after class and chatted informally in Russian about cinema, music, sports, family life, and social media while discovering similarities and differences between teenage life in Latvia and in the U.S.
The sessions with the peer tutors gave me a chance to learn vocabulary that I would need to know for everyday situations like what books I like to read and what movies I have watched. It is this experience of talking about every day topics that make the sessions with peer tutors both fun and useful.
—A 2020 NSLI-Y VSI Participant
Guest speakers shared their experiences developing advanced Russian-language skills and applying those skills in professional settings. Recent college graduate Connor Cunningham offered tips for securing additional scholarships to support sustained Russian-language development and talked his own goals of using Russian to research cybersecurity. Cunningham was recently awarded a Fulbright U.S. Student Program scholarship and is headed to Moldova in January 2021 to open study and conduct research.
These conversations were an opportunity for NSLI-Y participants to reflect on their own goals with Russian and to imagine themselves as multilingual global professionals. With respect to Shunk’s professionalization, he told the CREECA Connection: “Being able to use the Russian language as a means to communicate with other space programs like the Roscosmos State Corporation for Space Activities would greatly help my career prospects and help me to find a job as an aerospace engineer.”
Virtual language learning programs may be new territory for students and teachers alike, but they hold newfound potential to ignite language learners’ imaginations in empowering ways. NSLI-Y is currently accepting applications until November 5 for the 2021-22 year. Follow this link for additional application details.
Written by Ryan Goble