Pushkin Scholars: Recreating the Knowledge and Friendship of Alexander Pushkin’s Lyceum Years

In fall 2017, UW-Madison welcomed its first cohort of “Pushkin Scholars.” This program, open to alumni of the STARTALK Pushkin Summer Institute, a summer intensive pre-college program, provides priority consideration for financial support for students who study Russian at UW-Madison. Although the Pushkin Scholars do not necessarily major in literature or write poems, the program is inspired by the legacy of Alexander Pushkin, celebrated as the greatest of Russia’s poets. As the Pushkin Scholars study Russian, they are also engaging with big questions and working on intellectual and practical skills. Ideally, their UW-Madison academic degree will provide a life-changing foundation. But more than that, the camaraderie forged with fellow Pushkin Scholars can be a source of inspiration and support. Just as the Imperial Lyceum brought forth the young Pushkin’s literary talent and created fraternal bonds with his classmates, the program aims to provide scholars with a community of students and teachers, helping them to thrive academically and socially.

Pushkin Scholars at Der Rathskeller
Pushkin Scholars at Der Rathskeller.
From left to right: Julia, Claudia, Annette, Gustavo, Anthony, David Bethea, Anya Nesterchouk, and Andrew.

Diversity. Launched in 2012, the Pushkin Summer Institute (PSI) brings outstanding high school students to UW-Madison to study Russian and to deepen their knowledge of language and culture. The domestic program (PSI Madison) is also designed to introduce participants—who are underrepresented minorities and first generation college-bound students—to life on a large university campus. These students can continue their Russian language study on the NSLI-Y PSI Abroad in Daugavpils, Latvia. At UW-Madison, many Pushkin Scholars are accepted into the UW-Madison Russian Flagship Program. The Pushkin Scholars program, now in its third year, boasts a cohort of nine scholars who entered UW-Madison in 2017 and 2018; the program plans to invite five more students to join in fall 2019.

Opportunity. While Pushkin belonged to the Russian nobility, his family was far from being rich. Similarly, Pushkin Scholars normally come from families with a modest income. Realizing the burden of out-of-state tuition for these students, program directors David Bethea (professor emeritus of Slavic and PSI faculty director) and Anya Nesterchouk (PSI on-site director and program coordinator) work together with the UW-Madison Financial Aid Office to find opportunities for PSI alumni. Students receive scholarships based on merit and financial need, and program directors work with aspiring Pushkin Scholars to make sure they apply to existing programs well in advance. In line with principles of hard work and financial responsibility, Pushkin Scholars participate in work-study, which helps them to gain work experience and hone time management skills. As part of their financial aid package, Pushkin Scholars may also take on small loans, typically no more than $3,500 a year. However, as Bethea acknowledges, this amount can still be too onerous for some students, and the PSI team helps students apply for all financial aid opportunities existing on campus. For instance, Pushkin Scholars have received assistance from the BANNER and Posse Programs, and have been awarded Chancellor Scholarships, which cover almost all tuition expenses. According to Bethea, “Our goal is to help Pushkin Scholars graduate with minimal debt and maximum knowledge in order to succeed in their future.”

Community. Pushkin’s years at the Lyceum were some of the most joyful and memorable for him. While academic rigor and new knowledge played a role, it was the Lyceum camaraderie that sustained the spirit of the young poet beyond the classroom. Pushkin Scholars follow in his footsteps by weaving and strengthening their closely-knit support network. Several times a year PSI directors get together with students over dinner to check on their progress at school and discuss how they are coping with academic and social life. The level of rapport between Bethea, Nesterchouk, and the students echoes that of a family gathering. Outside these gatherings, Bethea and Nesterchouk are just a text or a WhatsApp message away from the students and they routinely reach out to them to discuss their grades and progress in school, as well as their everyday ups and downs. Current Pushkin Scholars also work as resident counselors during the Pushkin Summer Institute and later keep in touch with alumni of this program as they apply to UW-Madison.

David Bethea shows a poster received from Pushkin Scholars
David Bethea shows the surprise gift received from Pushkin Scholars

What some Pushkin Scholars are saying about the program:

 Andrew. I am the first out of four siblings who went to college in another state, and this would not be possible without the Pushkin Program. As a sophomore, I have learned how to work hard and be responsible for maintaining my scholarship. At the same time, because I do not have to work too many hours at an outside job, I can also enjoy the boxing club that I recently joined.

Annette. I must admit that at first I hated Russian and did not see myself learning it. I only came to the Pushkin Summer Institute to explore colleges. However, this program turned my attitude toward the language upside down. I fell in love with Russian, went to Latvia the next year, and am very happy to be studying at UW-Madison now. I am even considering majoring in Russian! Financial aid also gives me peace of mind because I know that I will not leave school with a large debt.

Anthony. I was choosing between two schools—UW-Madison and another Big Ten University. But the choice was not very hard because I knew that here I already have a community and I do not have to find new friends right away. After the PSI in Madison and abroad in Latvia, I am much more confident in speaking Russian, and try to incorporate the language in my everyday life by listening to Russian music, recommended by Latvian students, or by yelling commands in Russian when I play basketball.

Claudia. My first year as a Badger was challenging, but thanks to the support from Mr. Bethea and Anya, as well as other students, I was able to grow both academically and personally. The summer PSI program helped me to focus my interest in Russian language and political science—I realized I want to use the language in diplomacy and am already thinking about my future career. I have applied for a study abroad program in St. Petersburg and hope I am selected to go there during the summer!

Gustavo. Time management has been one of the major skills I learned after starting school as a freshman. The PSI definitely helped me to prepare for what’s to come in college. I have also joined the Russian Flagship Program as I hope to major in Russian and go to Almaty, Kazakhstan as a senior to spend a year studying in Russian.

Julia. The Pushkin Summer Institute prepared me for college courses and made it much easier to learn how to prioritize things at the university once I became a Badger. Thanks to the PSI, I can help other students pursue their dreams by working as an assistant to the on-site director. I also enjoy having a social life at UW-Madison because I do not have to spend all my spare time at work.

You can read more about the Pushkin Summer Institute and the Pushkin Scholars Program at: pushkin.wisc.edu