Vera Swanson and other student ambassadors inside the U.S. Ambassador to Kazakhstan's personal yurt on embassy grounds in Astana, Kazakhstan
Vera Swanson still remembers registering for her first semester of fall classes in 2012. Now as a graduated UW alumna, Swanson looks back fondly on her enrollment in an introductory Russian course. After all, this course set a precedent for the rest of her time at UW and beyond.
The 23-year-old recent graduate recalls her freshman decision to enroll in introductory Russian with pride. Although unaware of it at the time, the decision would set her down a path of language learning on campus and overseas. As she soon fell in love with the language, she began to pursue it further and became a part of the Russian Flagship Program.
“The intimate class sizes and wealth of opportunities to spend time with my classmates and instructors make the Russian Flagship Program at UW-Madison truly remarkable,” Swanson said in an email.
The opportunities through the Russian Flagship Program that Swanson speaks so highly of helped her secure a position representing the United States as a Student Ambassador at the World Expo in Astana, Kazakhstan, in summer 2017. The application process for student ambassadors was extremely competitive; Swanson was one of just 40 students selected nationally for the program. The Expo’s theme of “Future Energy: Reducing CO2 emissions, living energy efficiency and energy for all” paired perfectly with Swanson’s double major combination of Russian and Environmental Sciences and her certificate in Environmental Studies.
The World Expo is a global event that aims to educate the public about a global issue, with this year’s issue focusing on energy efficiency. Each year, a different host country invites other countries to participate. These countries then have the opportunity to build a pavilion to help share their ideas about the central theme.
As a Student Ambassador, Swanson welcomed guests and helped to staff the U.S. Pavilion at the Expo. She was even asked to represent the student ambassadors at a press conference, speaking alongside the president of the U.S. Pavilion and the U.S. Ambassador to Kazakhstan.
Vera Swanson (left) poses at the Expo 2017 in Astana, Kazakhstan
Swanson lived in the Expo Village (which she compares to the Olympic Village built for each Olympic Games), which she said was a once-in-a-lifetime experience. “We had people from Korea, Malaysia, Pakistan, Austria, and Vietnam living in our building,” Swanson said. “It was a pretty cool microcosm to be living in for the summer.”
In order to be eligible to apply to serve as a U.S. Student Ambassador, students were required to have proficiency in Russian and/or Kazakh language and an interest in the broader Eurasian region. With Swanson’s study of Russian through the UW-Madison Russian Flagship Program, which included an academic year abroad and a professional internship in Almaty, Kazakhstan, she proved to be a perfect match for the Expo.
In the 2016-17 academic school year, Swanson spent her year abroad in Almaty, Kazakhstan, at Al-Farabi Kazakh National University (KazNU). Beginning in January 2017, she interned weekly at the Institute of Plant Biology and Biotechnology, where she worked in a germplasm cryopreservation lab and continued her daily, intensive study and practice of the Russian language.
Swanson believes that the welcoming community of the Russian Flagship Program helped create an environment rich with opportunities like the Expo in Astana. “Everyone [in the program] cares about creating a welcoming environment for learning, friendships, and good conversation. All it takes is a community, and ours is one to be proud of,” Swanson said.
The Minnesota-native will return to the United States in October, where she’s already made plans for the future. After talking to her favorite professor on campus, Professor Irwin Goldman in the Department of Horticulture, she discovered a possible way to combine her love of language and her interests in agriculture.
“Central Asia is home to a plethora of genetic diversity, and it would be a dream to facilitate access to genetic resources between the U.S. and Russian speaking countries,” Swanson said.
With a Boren Scholarship to fund her studies, she’ll begin searching for government work in Washington D.C. as soon as she returns home to Minnesota.
To learn more about the UW-Madison Russian Flagship Program, go to russianflagship.wisc.edu.
Story by Emily Curtis, Language Institute