The language of friendship: pen pals project helps students connect

Irina Pidberejna, visual arts and emerging media management alumna, and her pen pal Valeria Podporina meet up in Russia a few years after they were paired together in her intermediate Russian class. The two have kept in contact over the years through social media. Photo courtesy of Irina Pidberejna

Irina Pidberejna said she took an intermediate Russian course her junior year of college because growing up in Ukraine had given her a knack for the language.

However, the people and places the course has brought her to are things she said she would have never expected.

“The Russian program at UCF is really one of a kind,” said Pidberejna, a visual arts and emerging media management alumna. “Finding these opportunities, you feel really lucky to be involved in it. It is something that stays with you.” 

Pidberejna said she participated in the Connecting Classrooms project, a semester-long assignment that Alla Kourova, associate professor of Russian, has coordinated with a class in Russia for the past 11 years. During the project, American and Russian students are paired up as pen pals and given monthly tasks to present information about each other and their cultures in the target language they’re learning.

Pidberejna said she saw the project as a way to make friendships and connect with her culture. Since then, she said, she was even hosted by one of her pen pals, Arcadii Katcai, while she was studying abroad with Kourova in Russia.

The Russian class from the Connecting Classrooms project visits its pen pal class in Orlando, Florida, in 2013. Students from the class stayed for about two weeks, during which they were hosted by their American pen pals. Photo courtesy of Irina Pidberejna

“When visiting Russia, there was a feeling of home while never having been there before,” Pidberejna said. “It felt very surreal because I was born in Ukraine and grew up a little bit there, but this was just a different experience that still felt like I was reconnecting to a part of myself that maybe I did not have before.”

Pidberejna said Valeria Podporina, one of her other Russian pen pals, once came to stay with her in Orlando. She said she brought Podporina to all of the attractions Central Florida has to offer, such as Walt Disney World, Universal Orlando and the beach. Pidberejna said her favorite part of the whole project was teaching her pen pals about American culture and showing them around.

“I loved just giving those students the first memories (of America) that they will have for the rest of their lives,” Pidberejna said. 

While she focuses on teaching the cultural aspects in her class, Kourova said she wants her students, including the Russian students, to learn from each other.

“I want them to know more about Russia,” Kourova said. “I am trying to do everything that I can for them, but it is still not enough. I do love cultural information, but young people have their own perspective of culture, which may be different from mine.”

The Russian class from the Connecting Classrooms project visits its pen pal class in Orlando, Florida, in 2013. Students from the class stayed for about two weeks, during which they were hosted by their American pen pals. Photo courtesy of Irina Pidberejna.

Kourova said she believes this project works because students have the motivation to communicate. She said that aside from getting a good grade in the class, she notices her students’ curiosity and interest in their pen pals, which is something junior clinical psychology major Kaitlyn Daleandro said she was experiencing. 

“I always look forward to hearing from my pen pal in our emails, and I look forward to when we have our Zoom meetings with them,” Daleandro said. “I find their lives so interesting.” 

Daleandro said she was learning the interests of her 17-year-old pen pal, Anna Goginashvili, such as studying physics, watching nature TV shows, reading Russian classics and listening to rock music. From their emails so far, Daleandro said she feels like they get along. She said she hopes to join Kourova on the annual summer study abroad trip to Russia, where she would be able to meet Goginashvili in person.

Pidberejna said the program led her to get her certification as a Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages instructor and become a tutor through the Fulbright Program, a scholarship program that gives faculty and graduate students the opportunity to teach and conduct research abroad.

UCF associate professor Alla Kourova’s class has its first meeting of the semester Wednesday. The class played an icebreaker game with the Russian class, so the pen pals could get acquainted before their first assignment. Melissa Donovan

During the nine months Pidberejna taught English to Russian students at her Fulbright internship in Russia, she said she was able to visit Podporina in Moscow, even attending her graduation. Pidberejna said they still keep in contact over social media.

“It’s like you’re building a community all around the world,” Pidberejna said.  “It was very heartwarming to know that you are going to a city that you’ve never been to and you already had a friend there because of this project.”

Meetings for Fall 2021

RASA will meet every other Wednesday at 7:00 pm in the psychology building, room 111

Conversation HourRussian Tea Hour at 5:30
Social at 7:00
Conversation HourRussian Tea Hour at 5:30;
“Study Abroad and Samovars”

Special RASA Meeting with Dr.K at 7:00; “Scholarship Opportunities Abroad: Fullbright, Boren, and more!”
November 15-19 is international week at UCF! Last meeting of Fall 2021!
Meeting Schedule for Fall 2021

President of RASA receives the most prestigious award at UCF, Order of Pegasus

Mariana Kellis, College of Arts and Humanities, is a history major with minors in political science, Russian studies, and a TEFL certificate. Mariana has served as President and Secretary of the Russian American Student Association, Secretary of UKnighting the World Through Literacy, and Senator for the Student Government Senate during the 52nd session. She has researched social class relations during the Russian Imperial era. Her Honors Undergraduate Thesis discusses the perspectives of American abolitionists on Russian serfdom during the Antebellum era. She has presented her research at various conferences and was awarded the J. Calvitt Clarke III Award for best undergraduate paper at the Florida Conference of Historians, 2020. Mariana is also a recipient of the Benjamin
A. Gilman Scholarship, the Distinguished Undergraduate Researcher Award, the Burnett Honors Undergraduate Thesis Scholarship, the Thomas D. Greenhaw
History Scholarship, and more. She studies Russian and participated in the STARTALK Intensive Russian Language Program in 2019. She is a Fulbright ETA Semifinalist for Russia and received the 2021 ACTR Post-Secondary Russian Scholar Laureate Award for the University of Central Florida.

RASA members received 2nd and 3rd place in the Yevgeny Yevtushenko Poetry Contest

We are extremely proud to introduce two RASA members, Victoria Orindas and Anastasia Demnshin, who were awarded 2nd and 3rd place in the Yevgeny Yevtushenko Poetry Contest of the Central Association of Russian Teachers of America.

Despite scoring in the top three out of 50+ participants, they are also arduous scholars and leaders within the Russian American Student Association and UCF community.

Victoria Orindas was awarded 2nd place. She is a UCF student majoring in Biomedical Sciences with a minor in the Spanish language. She is currently the Vice-President of the Russian American Student Association (RASA) and is proud to be educating other students about Russian culture. In addition to holding a leadership position with RASA, she is heavily involved on and off-campus. She is a member of the President’s Leadership Council, has founded the UCF chapter of a local non-profit called SALT Outreach, and serves as the Vice-President of Hearts for the Homeless Orlando. She is also a Burnett Honors Scholar and a former LEAD Scholar. This summer she will be conducting research at Mayo Clinic. 

Anastasia Demshin has received 3rd place in this poetry contest. She is a proud UCF Alumna who graduated Magna Cum Laude in May 2021. She earned a Bachelor’s degree in Interdisciplinary Studies with Concentrations in Computational Science and Art and a Minor in Economics. Having excelled academically she applied all of the knowledge acquired in the classroom to the workplace by becoming a coordinator and trainer in two different lines of businesses, one being for an opening team. Her extracurricular involvement does not stop here. She is also a former LEAD Scholar, a Burnett Honors Scholar, and has her own website where she showcases her artwork. 

Both of these students embody the traits of a true leader and we are extremely proud to see them excel academically as well as represent our student organization. They serve as the perfect example of what the student body of RASA consists of. RASA serves as a supportive community for fervent student leaders who share an interest in the Russian language and culture.