Why I Love Studying Russian at Swarthmore (And Why You Should Too)

If you ever run into me on campus, I will likely talk to you about one of three main topics: 

    1. Why my dog is the greatest dog in the world (non-negotiable, sorry)
    2. Why I want to become a knight like Don Quijote when I grow up
    3. Why you (and everyone you know) should become a student of Russian.

In this post, I will share my personal experience with studying Russian at Swarthmore. For more information on the other two topics, come find me on campus anytime! 

Before I officially enrolled at Swarthmore, I was drawn to the curricular and extracurricular offerings of the Russian department. When I attended Swatstruck, an admitted student event, in 2018, I was greatly intrigued by the posters advertising Migration Stories: A Reading and Discussion with Mikhail Shishkin. I also elected to shadow Professor Sibelan Forrester’s Russian Fairytales class. She not only shared the reading with me ahead of time and invited me to participate in the class discussion, but she also spent a long time talking to me about the Swarthmore Russian department and my own interests. Thanks to these initial interactions, I resolved to take Russian when I arrived on campus in the fall, and Professor Forrester became my academic advisor. 

I was initially terrified by my first Russian class at Swarthmore when I realized that there was only one other student enrolled in the course. I worried that I would fall behind in a class that met five times per week and was team-taught by two professors. Furthermore, I felt overwhelmed by the amount of vocabulary and grammar we were expected to acquire and the frequency of exams and larger writing assignments. However, my professors were extraordinarily understanding and frequently checked in with me to make sure that I felt supported inside and outside of the classroom. Before long, I felt much more comfortable participating in class and I started to really enjoy studying Russian.

Instead of simply teaching from the textbook, the professors incorporated a variety of authentic materials ranging from short stories to news articles into our class so as to better link our study of the language to our other academic and personal interests.  In the spring semester, Professor Forrester played her guitar for our class every Thursday and taught us how to sing songs to practice our phonetics, which always helped me to relax after a long week. Through intensively reviewing grammar together; memorizing Russian poetry; and working on a group video project which required me to exercise my nonexistent video production skills, the other student in the class became one of my best friends at Swarthmore.

The study of Russian has also enabled me to connect with students, faculty, and scholars outside of the Swarthmore community. During the spring semester of my freshman year, Russian professor José Vergara took a group of Swarthmore students on a fully funded field-trip to New York. On this trip, we visited the home and studio of Ilya and Emilia Kabakov to learn more about their large-scale ‘total installations’ that immerse the audience in the contemplation of complex philosophical, political, historical, and artistic questions. This trip gave me the opportunity to synthesize my interests in Russian literature, history, and language by entering into dialogue with two of the most famous representatives of the Soviet avant-garde.

This year, students from the Russian and Art departments had the opportunity to visit the renowned artist Vitaly Komar at his studio in New York. Mr. Komar spoke to us about topics ranging from the Sots Art movement that he co-founded to his perspective on the practice of artistic criticism. These field trips generally end with a delicious meal consisting of way too much food at an Eastern European restaurant in Brighton Beach, Brooklyn.

Me and another Russian student at Brighton Beach, Brooklyn.
Pelmeni, a Russian dumpling which I highly recommend

Through the Swarthmore Project for Eastern European Relations, I have had the opportunity to learn from and meet activists, scholars, and dissidents who are reimagining post-Soviet spaces. This year’s Activism Under Totalitarianism series, for example, brought New Yorker journalist Masha Gessen to campus to speak about ethical journalism, LGBTQ+ issues in Russia, and ways to engage with the struggles for political freedom in Eastern Europe and the United States. Nadya Tolokonnikova of the Russian feminist punk band Pussy Riot hosted a free concert for Swarthmore students after speaking about her experience being incarcerated in Russia and the importance of independent media to social movements. Swarthmore’s cash-free campus means that no students have to pay to attend any of these special events, which greatly improves the accessibility of Russian studies on campus.

As editor of the tri-college Journal for Eastern European Relations which will be published next year, I work regularly with students at Bryn Mawr and Haverford Colleges and in consultation with Swarthmore’s excellent libraries to provide a platform for interdisciplinary undergraduate scholarship pertaining to Eastern Europe and Eurasia. The tri-college consortium has enabled me and my friend Sophie, who goes to Haverford, to work on the journal together. I frequently hop on the tri-college shuttle, which runs between the 3 campuses, to meet my friends at Bryn Mawr and Haverford and attend events for free on their campuses as well. 

Me and my friend Sophie at an incredible Georgian restaurant in the suburbs of Philadelphia, which we finally reached after riding 62(!) stops on the bus

I look up to the professors and other students in the Swarthmore Russian department as models of humility, intellectual curiosity, and ethical social engagement inside and outside of the classroom. I am currently both enrolled in and working as the teaching assistant for the course RUSS043: Chernobyl  – Nuclear Narratives and the Environment taught by Professor José Vergara. In this class, we study the Chernobyl catastrophe through literary, cultural, ecological, political, and scientific lenses. Our study of representations of the Chernobyl catastrophe has allowed us to investigate and engage with questions of language, power, environmental accountability, and more. As part of RUSS043, we visited the Limerick Nuclear Generating Station in Pennsylvania, where we toured a nuclear power plant and had the opportunity to talk to the engineers and other staff about some of the topics that we discussed in class.

A photo I took on our tour of the Limerick Generating Station

My experience as a TA for RUSS043 has given me the opportunity to learn about everything from lesson planning to how to structure class discussion and strengthened my resolve to earn a PhD and enter academia in the future. In light of the present COVID-19 pandemic, this class has been especially important to me as I reflect on how the humanities can generate productive and responsible responses to catastrophes that transcend geographical boundaries.

I am grateful to the entire Swarthmore Russian department for supporting me from the first day of college until now. Last month, I officially declared my major in Russian, and I look forward to continuing my engagement with the department in the years to come. If you are considering coming to Swarthmore, I sincerely hope that you will study languages here, especially Russian. I promise that you will grow in ways that you never anticipated.

About the Author:

I’m Grace, a sophomore from Salem, Oregon. I am a prospective Honors Russian major, Course Spanish major, and Honors Spanish minor. You can often find me reading in my favorite chair by the window on the third floor of Kohlberg, looking for butter brickle ice cream at Sharples, or doing Where’s Waldo puzzles late at night with my amazing roommate, Madeline.

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