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Russian Flagship Program pushes UNC students to immerse in language


UNC graduate program associate Kat Goodpaster smiles in front of Wilson Library on Wednesday, March 8, 2023.

Senior Sebastian Farris said he wanted to study abroad after taking Russian in high school, but lacked the resources to go overseas until he joined UNC's Russian Flagship Program.

Now, as a program ambassador, he is helping students learn about the many benefits of the program.  

Launched in 2020, the Russian Flagship program is funded by the U.S. government and allows students from all majors to participate in four years of Russian language coursework and abroad travels. 

“The United States Department of Defense funds universities across America to have these programs to be able to train students in speaking, reading, listening and everything else that comes with learning a language,” Farris said. 

He added that UNC is one of only eight Russian flagship programs located in the United States. 

For international opportunities, the program allows participants to study in a Russian-speaking country over the summer and to spend a year in Almaty, Kazakhstan. 

Since the invasion of Ukraine, some students have voiced safety concerns about travel to Russia, but Farris said the program hasn’t sent students to Russia in multiple years. 

“We have this lively, thriving program about the Russian language and we are showing no signs of stopping because we've been able to set ourselves up to be able to continue in a way that is not contingent on the ability to go to Russia itself,” he said.

Students’ study abroad experiences have been relocated to Russian-speaking countries including the Republic of Georgia and Kazakhstan.

Farris said the two months he spent in Kazakhstan helped further his education and strengthen his language learning by being able to immerse himself in the language outside of the classroom.

Alexandra Love, a sophomore studying political science and music, also studied abroad through the program and spent last summer in the Republic of Georgia. 

“It was the first time I was using Russian outside of a classroom, and it really forced me to be comfortable speaking on the spot in unexpected environments,” she said.

Students also receive an array of opportunities when participating in the program, including tutoring, advising from faculty, scholarships and internships. 

Love said the professors in the program feel like family, as they are supportive of students’ academic and personal goals. 

On a week-to-week basis, the program holds events such as movie nights, craft nights and guest lectures. 

Farris said it's important for students to learn the culture of other countries that speak Russian since the program’s capstone year is now located in Kazakhstan.  

“It's necessary more now than ever to get people acquainted with the culture of Central Asia and Eastern Europe almost equally, if not more than, the culture of Russia itself,” he said.  

Some students believe the program helps people understand that the Russian language is separate from the country of Russia and decreases negative stereotypes surrounding the language. 

Love said she is grateful the program helps spread awareness of underrepresented Russian-speaking countries through its cultural events. 

Despite the United States’ growing tension with Russia over the war with Ukraine, many students and faculty believe this program is important for the University, considering the important role Russia has on a global scale. 

Kat Goodpaster, a graduate program associate, said the program prepares students with skills for the job market. 

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“The U.S. government thinks it's incredibly important for U.S. national security and economic prosperity,” she said. “Learning a critical language like this helps boost the students' abilities to not only function in those areas, but also in general.” 

In addition to learning at a collegiate level, Love said this program prepares students for a life beyond the area of Chapel Hill.