CESSI celebrates Title VIII grant renewal and successful record-breaking, virtual summer

As summer 2020 started to wind down, CESSI (Central Eurasian Studies Summer Institute) received the good news that it is once again the recipient of a Title VIII grant that will enable CREECA to award 10 federally funded scholarships to graduate students, post-baccalaureate scholars, and working professionals to help support their research and language learning goals in summer 2021. CESSI 2021 and Title VIII applications are set to open mid-October.

The grant renewal locks in CESSI’s tenth consecutive summer with CREECA as its administrative home. CESSI program director Sarah Linkert told the CREECA Connection:

We at CESSI are so appreciative of the U.S. Department of State’s continued support for the program and its scholars. We are privileged to be able to help scholars and professionals make significant linguistic gains in these vital less commonly taught languages.

The Title VIII Program, administered by the U.S. Department of State, specifically funds language training for the study of Eastern Europe and Eurasia and independent states of the former Soviet Union. The objective is to contribute to U.S. expertise in the region and generate open-source, policy-relevant research. 

In addition to funding through Title VIII, CESSI is also able to offer deserving students scholarship support from other sources, including WISLI (Wisconsin Intensive Summer Language Institutes) and FLAS (the Foreign Language and Areas Studies program, funded by the U.S. Department of Education). The multiple ways CESSI provides financial support enhances the diversity and size of the network of researchers and language learners dedicated to the Central Eurasian region. And this was especially the case for CESSI 2020. 

The CESSI 2020 Intermediate-Advanced Kazakh group. Clockwise from upper left: instructor Raushan Myrzabekova with students Katka, Jacob, Sergei, Saadiah, and Toma. (Photo courtesy of Raushan Myrzabekova)

CESSI 2020 welcomed a record-breaking cohort of 30 participants from 19 home universitiesa cohort that is nearly double that of previous summers. Summer 2020 was also CESSI’s inaugural fully virtual summer, although previous sessions had included opportunities for individual distance learners. Nevertheless, the cohort of 30 embarked on an intensive language learning journey to essentially gain two semesters worth of language study in just eight weeks. This summer, CESSI offered instruction in elementary and intermediate/advanced Kazakh, intermediate Tajik, intermediate Uyghur, and elementary and intermediate Uzbek.  Linkert said:

Our format abruptly changed but the instructors’ commitment to a culturally enriching and high-quality language learning experience had not. An entirely virtual summer with an unprecedented number of students was a healthy challenge; harnessing the ability to offer virtual programming is as important as ever for the teaching and learning of less commonly taught languages.

The efforts of CESSI staff, instructors, and students paid off. 100% of those who took both a pre- and post-program Oral Proficiency Interview (OPI) climbed an average of 1.5 sub-levels on the ACTFL proficiency scale, with one student climbing from IntermediateMid to AdvancedMid—an impressive 3 sub-levels! Meanwhile, all elementary-level students tested in the Intermediate levels in their post-program OPIs. 

CREECA recently caught up with several CESSI 2020 participants to hear their thoughts on an unusual yet productive summer. A common theme was that students viewed their instructors’ patience and emphasis on real-life interactions as key to their success.  

The instructional component was great. I particularly liked the variety of themes covered in the course and feel like I can do a lot more with the language now.
—A student of Kazakh

I really liked how we were encouraged to speak during class. I think it made the OPI exam much easier since we were already so well-prepared to handle spontaneous conversation, which was a part of our class every day.
—A student of Uzbek

Even though students were learning remotely, they managed to technologically form close-knit communities of language learners, which also enhanced the CESSI experience.  

The small class size was really helpful in mitigating the difficulties of online learning.
—A student of Tajik

I most liked the opportunity to be part of a community of learners interested in a less commonlytaught language.
—A student of Uyghur

The CESSI 2020 Uyghur group. Clockwise from upper left: instructor Gulnisa Nazarova with students James, Connor, Stu, and Jianyuan. (Photo courtesy of Gulnisa Nazarova)

In addition to meeting online for 20 hours per week of language courses, the 2020 cohort established a sense of community by participating in a variety of co-curricular activities.  

I loved the lectures with researchers and professionals. I thought they were incredibly insightful and regretted we couldn’t meet on campus.
—A student of Uzbek

These activities included informal yet informative Sunday brunches, a CESSI Alumni Research Panel with Nick Seay and Laura Tourtellotte, a virtual tour of Central Asian Textiles from the Helen Louise Allen Textile Collection, and a final closing ceremony where students presented their final video projects. The CESSI community also enjoyed several lectures from guest experts on the Central Eurasian region. The following CESSI lectures are now publicly available to stream: 

The Title VIII Fellowship covers full tuition at CESSI and provides a stipend to cover living expenses for the summer. Priority applications will be due in early February 2021 for Title VIII and FLAS fellowships. While the format of CESSI 2021 remains uncertain, CESSI facilitators are committed to offering another summer of high-quality language instruction. 

Offering this course remotely was certainly a feat for us and the way the CREECA team and our instructor thoroughly planned and strived toward a high level of dedication made up for it! 
—A student of Kazakh

CESSI is one of five intensive summer language programs offered under WISLI. These summer programs collectively offer instruction in more than 20 less commonly taught languages from around the globe each summer at UW-Madison. Follow CESSI on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram for updates on scholarship opportunities and application deadlines. 

Written by Ryan Goble with Allison Streckenbach