Russian Studies Program wins big in essay contest

Small program proves large in national arena

From left to right: John Nunes, Joseph Babeau, Maya Tydykov, Matthew Kupfer, Mark Borreliz, Anastasia Austin

It may be small in numbers, but the Brandeis Russian Studies Program has proved to be large in winnings, with six students placing in a national Russian-language essay competition. This year’s contest attracted 1,057 essays from 48 universities, colleges and institutions across the nation. The topic: “What is a friend?”

The American Councils of Teachers of Russian has held the competition for the past 13 years. Students are given an hour to write their essays, which are then shipped to Russia and rated by native speakers, all of whom are also teachers of Russian.  

“They come with their brains and pencils in hand,” says Irina Dubinina, director of the Russian Language Program at Brandeis. “They are given one hour to write in Russian.” The essays were written in February and the results were announced this week.

The competition is divided into heritage and non-heritage categories, each with levels of experience. Non-heritage students are broken down into first-year through fourth-year students, and heritage students are divided into three groups depending on how many years of schooling they had in Russia. Students are awarded first, second or third places or honorable mention in their category/level.

Matt Kupfer ’12, placed first in the non-heritage learners category, Level 3, meaning he has studied Russian for three years, and does not come from a Russian-speaking background.

The summer of his sophomore year Kupfer did an independent internship in Kyrgyzstan. During second semester of his junior year he traveled to St. Petersburg and took part in a Brandeis-sponsored intensive Russian language program.

“I was very excited to learn that I placed,” says Kupfer. “I have entered this contest every year that I’ve been at Brandeis and this is the first time that I have placed at any level. I’ve worked very hard at it and it was nice to see that rewarded.”

Kupfer says he found the essay question daunting and tied his answer into his experience in Kyrgyzstan.

“I was there during a period of inter-ethnic conflict,” says Kupfer. “My essay discussed that even though my friends didn’t understand my interest in Kyrgyzstan — especially after having experienced the conflict — they were still supportive because they knew it was important to me. A true friend may not understand why you want the things that you do, but they still support your goals.”

The Brandeis Russian Studies Program may be small, but it’s very vibrant.

“I am bursting at the seams with pride for these students,” says Dubinina. “Universities that are known for their Russian studies programs did not place first this year in the first- and third-year categories—we beat out Columbia, Princeton and Yale. For a rather small program, this is a huge result.”

The purpose of the essay contest, says Dubinina, is to encourage learning and act as an incentive to be recognized on a national level.

In any given year the program has three to five majors and a number of minors. This year Dubinina has 20 students in her first-year class, 18 students in her heritage class and another 18 in an advanced heritage class, meaning that they grew up speaking Russian.

Five professors teach in the Russian Studies Program. Dubinina teaches language; Robin Feuer Miller and David Powelstock teach literature; ChaeRan Freeze and Gregory Freeze teach history.

“It’s encouraging for students to know that they are not only stars in the eyes of their teachers, but stars in the eyes of a big national community that studies Russian,” Dubinina says.
Winners are:

  • John Nunes, First Place (Non-Heritage Learners, Level 1)
  • Joseph Babeu,  Third Place (Non-Heritage Learners, Level 1)
  • Mark Borreliz,  Honorable Mention (Non-Heritage Learners, Level 1)
  • Matt Kupfer, First Place (Non-Heritage Learners, Level 3)
  • Maya Tydykov, First Place (Heritage Learners, Level 1)
  • Anastasia Austin, Second Place (Heritage Learners, Level 1)

Categories: Humanities and Social Sciences

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