STARTALK would not be possible without the incredible team of instructors and teaching assistants. Over several weeks, the team has closely worked together to develop the curriculum for STARTALK 2019 “East Meets West.” The instructors are excited to share language and culture with new and returning faces! They are not afraid to challenge themselves with delivering fast-paced, engaging lessons that prepare students to be active global citizens. Just like every year, they came up with new interactive activities that provide the most immersive experience possible.

Meet your STARTALK 2019 team!

Dr. Ala Kourova, program director

Dr. Kourova, program director, shared with us how the program has changed over the years: “The program is changing every year. We try to learn from our mistakes and make it more interesting and entertaining, combining learning and fun. For example, in the first year, we did not invite any speakers, but this year and last year we have many speakers. We have many games that help student familiarize with the culture and memorize the vocabulary. We also incorporate technology, like when creating digital stories as the final project.”

We asked the program director what vision she has for the future years. “We are definitely looking for more participants. Expanding the program to include an advanced group, not only beginners and intermediate, is another goal. I am also working on inviting military students to create a group for them,” said Dr. Kourova.

Irina Pidberejna, lead instructor



Irina Pidberejna, the lead instructor,  reflects on the importance of STARTALK in today’s world: “Our world is global and interconnected: in other countries, on other continents, most people speak another language besides their native language. STARTALK provides the opportunity, without study abroad, to have an immersive experience. It is probably the closest immersive experience you can have without going to another country. But we are doing it in a fun and engaging way. We are not memorizing grammar charts or verb conjugations; it’s all about actively using the language.”



Yulia Dochtchennikov, beginner group instructor


Yulia Dochtchennikov, a former STARTALK volunteer, greets the beginner group in the morning with a smile. Working with English speakers has changed Yulia’s perspective on her mother tongue: “As a teacher, and a Russian language speaker, I did not realize that it is actually very difficult to teach others, but doing so is an honor. It is challenging to teach your own language to someone who does not speak it, and Russian is a difficult language. There is so much respect from the students, just as I had respect for English when I was a learner.” 

Regardless of the difficulties, there is much joy in sharing the Russian language with the students. Yulia’s favorite part of teaching is meeting new people and making new connections. 



Yulia Belova, high school group instructor



Yulia Belova is excited to work with high school students this year. She is amazed by how quickly they absorb new information. At the same time, Yulia notes that “The most challenging part is to engage every student through the right instruction that will match the students’ proficiency levels, needs, and goals.” The difficulties cannot be compared to the impact that STARTALK has on instructors and students: “My favorite part is just being here! I enjoy the process of teaching and the atmosphere of the program.”





Eric Tangarife, TA, International Relations major


Eric Tangarife, TA, was a STARTALK participant in 2017. He then became a teaching assistant in 2018 and returned this year to give back to the program. “When I was a participant, I was introduced to the Youth Festival in Sochi and then ended up being accepted to it. The trip was a continuation of my STARTALK experience, that really immersed me in the Russian culture, and since then I’ve been “hooked.” I have become a Russian Club officer since then, and it brought me to where I am today,” shares Eric.  



Spencer Martin, TA, MA in Political Science




Spencer Martin, TA, MA in Political Science, has also closely worked with the Russian program at UCF for many years. Reflecting on the impact STARTALK made on him, Spencer believes that  “The experience of being a STARTALK TA will come in handy later on in [his] career when coordinating people, working in a group setting, and being a team player.” He says that the program is so much more than learning basic Russian – it is an immersive cultural experience. 


Michelle Verbitskaya, TA, Secondary Education Language Arts major



Michelle Verbitskaya, TA, hopes to teach Russian and English in the future: “Working with a variety of people that come from different backgrounds is an invaluable experience. I am planning to pursue language teaching as a career, so being a teaching assistant gives me an insight into what it takes to deliver a successful lesson. At times I also participate in the activities as if I was a student, which helps me identify the activities that are most engaging.”




Sean Skillings, TA, International Relations major




Sean Skillings is another TA studying International Relations and an avid language learner: “My participation in STARTALK 2017 made me realize the full extent of my love for challenging languages. The program was very intense but very rewarding. I wanted to give back to the program and new students because I appreciated what the instructors did for me and my language learning experience.” 






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