The Russian Flagship Program at the University of Wisconsin-Madison is a federally funded program that prepares undergraduate students of any major to reach a professional level of competence in Russian language and culture by graduation through intensive coursework, language tutoring, and study abroad.
In early April, the Russian Flagship organized a networking event, Global Professionals Day, that allowed current students of Russian to meet with Russian Flagship alumni to reflect on their shared experiences. With various individual majors and different professional goals, the alumni were passionate about sharing their language learning tips, overseas experiences, and career trajectories, inspiring current students to successfully incorporate their Russian skills into their future job searches.
The event included a panel discussion with four alumni: Alexandar Idárraga (Russian major ‘18), John Lyell (economics and Russian major ‘15), Naira Ovsepyan (political science and Russian major ‘12), and Leah Shapiro (biology and Russian major ‘15). Another guest, Sydney Stotter, a program officer from American Councils, the organization that administers Russian Flagship study abroad programs, also participated in the panel.
Students are expected to study abroad twice during the Russian Flagship Program: first on an introductory pre-capstone study abroad program for at least six weeks, usually completed during the summer, and then on the Russian Overseas Flagship capstone program in Almaty, Kazakhstan for an academic year. Administered by the UW-Madison Office of International Academic Programs in collaboration with American Councils, the Russian Overseas Flagship capstone year abroad provides students the opportunity for intensive, professional language training and development through rigorous coursework, a professional internship, and a homestay with a Russian-speaking family.
Openly sharing their overseas internship experiences with the use of Russian language, each of the former students had different advice for current students. Along with gaining Russian language proficiency and intercultural competencies through coursework, students in the program are encouraged to actively search for other academic interests that can be connected to their intensive Russian language study. To market their language skills to employers, the alumni noted that it is essential to combine language studies with study of another discipline. When applying to jobs and graduate programs, the Russian Flagship Program can help a person appear unique and interesting. Shapiro (‘15), who will begin a graduate program in international education development at the University of Pennsylvania next fall, believes that her major in biology combined with her Russian language skills enabled her to stand out during the graduate admissions process.
“Being interesting is very important. The Russian Flagship Program will make you interesting,” said Shapiro (‘15).
During the capstone year abroad, each student receives an opportunity to utilize their Russian language skills in a professional context. This experience helps students develop their Russian language proficiency while gaining valuable professional experience in an individual field of interest. The type of internship can vary depending on students’ academic and professional interests and does not have to be directly related to their individual majors. Students can also take advantage of this opportunity to explore careers outside of their majors. Lyell (‘15), an economics major, completed his internship at a law firm in Kazakhstan where he researched and composed reports on various aspects of Kazakh law. While interning abroad, he discovered a computational linguistics master’s degree program in Moscow, Russia, in which he enrolled the following year.
“Russian allowed me to not only explore opportunities outside of traditional undergraduate areas of study, but also find a way to integrate my two personal hobbies, programming and language,” said Lyell (‘15).
In their internships, Russian Flagship students face challenges that may lead to great opportunities. Interning at the City Cardiology Center in Almaty, Kazakhstan, Idárraga (‘18) assisted doctors and nurses with various tasks, such as measuring patients’ blood pressure and pulse. He was constantly invited by physicians to observe their work in the operating room for several open-heart surgeries. The Russian medical vocabulary he gained during his internship increased his competitiveness at top U.S. medical schools to which he applied following graduation from UW-Madison. Idárraga will return to Madison in the fall as a medical student in the School of Medicine and Public Health.
“If you have to do something, do it well. For example, at my internship, one of my occasional odd jobs was hauling potatoes from the bazaar to the hospital. I did my best and hauled those potatoes like a yak. That ended up being one of the things that won me the gratitude of the staff. You never know what task will make you stand out,” said Idárraga (‘18).
The alumni also suggested current undergraduate students of Russian begin the career exploration and development process early in their college experience.
“I wish I had explored more career interests and set specific goals as well as the steps I would take to achieve my goals before I started the internship abroad,” said Ovsepyan (‘12), who improved her Russian language and translation skills and gained knowledge about social and political life in Russia while interning at the Anti-Discrimination Center “Memorial” in St. Petersburg.
Through the alumni panel discussion, current undergraduate students achieved deeper understanding of the ways that the Russian Flagship Program can help them network, gain professional work experience, and plan for their next steps post-graduation. The experience of interacting with native Russian speakers and exposure to new cultural contexts helps Russian Flagship students develop transferable skills, such as cross-cultural communication and creative problem-solving, making them highly valuable to future employers.
Written by Yeonsoo Kelly Kim, Digital and Social Media Communication Intern