STARTALK Interview with a Boren Fellow

Dr. Morris and Karla

Karla Aurazo, an intermediate group student, is a Boren Fellow, who studied Russian in Kazakhstan. We asked Karla to share with us her experiences in Central Asia, and tell the story behind her gorgeous traditional dress: “Я жила в Казахстане один учебный год. У меня было много прекрасного опыта в Центральной Азии. От прогулок по базарам до походов в горы – мало-помалу я понимала силу и происхождение казахского народа. Их традиции, их гостеприимство, их языки, их прошлое, настоящее, и то, что они с нетерпением ждут в будущем. Я жила среди людей со всей Центральной Азии и соседних стран. Одна из моих любимых культур – таджикская. Пока многие ездили в престижные места на дорогие весенние каникулы, у меня была возможность посетить страну многих моих сверстников, с которыми я училась и жила в Алматы – таджиков! Я была поражена их скромностью, ремеслами, историей и чувством домашнего уюта в сравнении с моим перуанским прошлым. Это платье показалось мне в глаза на одном из их красочных базаров в Душанбе. История, лежащая в его основе, такая же милая, как и те дамы, которые продали его мне и подправили, чтобы оно подошло мне как следует. Такие красивые вещи одевают на свадьбы и разные официальные мероприятия. Куда бы я ни пошла, мое сердце было переполнено. Я никогда не пожалею об этом периоде своей жизни. Я посвятила свое время и отдала свое сердце различным сообществам. И я бы сделала это снова и снова, ради моих братьев и сестер в Центральной Азии. Men Qazaqstandy zhaksy kóremin. Ман Точикистонро дуст медорам.”

STARTALK Participant Spotlight

Every year, STARTALK at UCF eagerly welcomes returning student. Some of them, like Michael Mallis, participated for 3 years in a row! According to Michael, the program made him a competitive candidate for graduate programs and employment opportunities. We asked him to share how STARTALK transformed his life.

Michael Mallis, intermediate group

“Having attended as a student and teaching assistant for the STARTALK Russian Language Program at UCF for three years, it is an irreplaceable tool for immersing oneself in the language while boosting one’s competitiveness and desirability in the professional world. Having interviewed with – and been offered a job – with a federal agency, my utilization and commentary on the STARTALK  program in the interview unequivocally boosted my chances of being competitive for the position. As of recently, I have been accepted into Georgetown University for a Master’s Program in Foreign Studies; and it is no mystery that the utilization of STARTALK and the Russian language on my application directly aided my chances of being accepted. Desires to work in the foreign policy and diplomatic field in the future are certain to be very attainable as my three years of studies progress forward.”

How will you utilize your STARTALK experience in the future? Leave a comment below or on our social media using #STARTALK_UCF_2019


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Moscow Metro

The Moscow Metro was created in 1935 and serves the city of Moscow, along with the
neighboring cities of Krasnogorsk, Reutov, Lyubertsy, and Kotelniki. The total route length of
the Moscow Metro is around 400km, and it has 232 stations. This makes it the fifth longest
metro system in the world. The Metro is almost entirely underground, with the deepest part of
the system being Park Pobedy station (84 meters underground). It is the busiest metro station in
Europe and is also a tourist attraction sought out for by many tourists.

Komsomolskaya station of the Moscow metro

Park Pobedy station is in the Dorogomilovo district of Moscow. It is the fourth largest
metro station in the world. Park Pobedy has numerous unique aspects of its design that make it
special. For example, it has two platforms, designed by Nataliya Shurygina and Nikolay
Shumakov, that have the exact same design but with opposite color schemes. The Pylons along
the outbound platform are made of red and grey marble. Lastly, the station has two murals which
depict the 1812 French invasion of Russia during the Napoleonic Wars and scenes from the
Great Patriotic War.

Russian study abroad participants presenting about the Moscow metro

Many stations in the Metro have reflective marble walls, high ceilings, and grand
chandeliers. These designs embodied the Stalinist ideals of светлое будущее, which means a radiant future. The engineers of the metro recognized lighting as a legitimate style of artistic
expression. They used experimentation with different materials (cast bronze, aluminum, sheet
brass, steel, and milk glass) to their advantage, creating styles and methods that used technology
to its most efficient extent. The Metro serves a practical purpose by assisting many in their daily
lives with its efficiency of travel, but the design of the Metro itself is a thing of architectural and
artistic beauty.

What is your favorite Moscow metro station? Leave a comment below or on our social media using #STARTALK_UCF_2019


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Why is Russian a Critical Need Language?

Russian is a native language for 154 million people, with around 265 million total speakers. Russia’s population has around 190 different ethnic groups and nationalities, so learning Russian provides the learner with a broad perspective of the world that stems from a plethora of eastern European and Central Asian cultures. Examples of other countries where Russian is a popular or official language include Belarus, Ukraine, Kazakhstan, and Kyrgyzstan. Knowing this information helps us understand why Russian is classified as a critical need language.

Participants creating Pulsar accounts


Participants uploading evidence of learning to Pulsar



Russian is officially recognized as the language for business, media, education, and politics in many of these countries. The list of what is considered a critical language changes sometimes, but we can be certain the Russian will remain one for the foreseeable future. Russian is less commonly taught in the United States than the likes of Spanish, French, and German. It is easy to see why, given the difficulty of the language for English speakers, and the relative lack of Russian language speakers in the United States, let alone instructors! This is why Russian is a critical language; the language is seldom taught to students in the United States, even though the government is in urgent need of speakers.




Arielle giving a presentation on her study abroad in Russia experience

The government would like more speakers of Russian for various jobs, among them being interpretation, translation, conduction of business, and strengthening diplomatic ties. Diplomacy is especially important. It is not possible to truly understand someone’s culture, ideas, or intents without knowing their mother tongue. Given the importance of the Russian speaking world in today’s political climate, we can see why Russian is classified as a critical need language, and why the US government has such a high demand for Russian speakers.



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STARTALK 2019: Let’s Talk About Russian

Happy day 3 of STARTALK!

By the third day, beginners have mastered multiple phrases, like “я живу во Флориде” and “очень приятно,” that are useful both in daily conversations and business setting. Intermediate students are comfortable with longer conversations on topics of hobbies and navigating the airport. Classrooms are filled with Russian chatter and laughter. Have a look at how well Ahmed and JP, two beginner students, introduce themselves to each other:

So what kind of wild beast is Russian? Let’s look at some facts! The Russian language is the 8th most widely spoken language in the world with 155 million native speakers and 105 million language learners (yes, you are one of them!). The language is related to Belarusian and Ukranian, so knowing Russian will help you communicate with people from several Eastern European countries. 

Alex (intermediate group) learning new hobby-related words

Many participants loved салат Оливье and борщ. Both of these dishes have картофель (potato) in them. But did you know that the word “картофель” was borrowed from German? Russian vocabulary expanded greatly during Peter the Great’s Westernization. The language, however, did not only borrow foreign words but also loaned some to other languages. You have probably heard of cosmonaut and sputnik; both of them originated as Russian words. 

Beginner group learning greetings

Russian is listed as a category IV language by the American Foreign Service Institute (FSI), the second most difficult category for English speakers. Some believe it should be category V, the most difficult (which includes Chinese and Arabic). You, too, might find it challenging, but don’t be discouraged! Our talented team of instructors is eager to help you out. 

What do you find to be the most challenging when learning Russian? Leave a comment below or on our social media using #STARTALK_UCF_2019 


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Meet Your STARTALK 2019 Team!

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.” 






What questions do you have for the instructors and teaching assistants? Leave a comment below or on our social media using #STARTALK_UCF_2019 


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STARTALK Russian language program at UCF is a three-week intensive language program with a mission to popularize critical need foreign languages. The University of Central Florida has successfully hosted the Russian program since 2015 and has become well-known in the Orlando community. This year STARTALK at UCF had a brand new addition: now it is offered not only in Russian but also in Arabic. 


Every year, STARTALK brings together participants from various backgrounds, who are looking to practice their language skills. The program is offered for different levels of proficiencies: from novice to intermediate. In a short span of three weeks, participants strengthen conversational skills in the morning and expand their knowledge of rich and diverse Russian culture in the afternoon. From traditional food to games and cultural presentations, everyone has a chance to see, hear, and taste Russia.

Mariana, beginner group: “Today I learned different ways of introducing myself and greeting other people. I practiced writing my name and using the Russian alphabet. The most memorable part was interacting with other students – it really made me feel like I was learning Russian!”

Today for lunch, participants savored Самса (Samosa), a traditional savory pastry most commonly


filled with meat and onions. The pastry is most often baked, and almost never fried. They are popularly sold as hot snacks by street vendors.


Rachel, beginner group: “I really liked самса. The flavor of the pastry was really interesting – it was nothing like I have ever had before!”


Салат Оливье


Participants also enjoyed Салат Оливье (Olivier Salad), that is traditionally eaten during Новый Год ( New Year’s) celebration. The salad is made with a variety of vegetables, like potatoes, carrots, and pickles, as well as chicken or sometimes ham or bologna sausage. 




We asked a student from the intermediate group about their first impressions of and future expectations for the program:

William, intermediate group: “I really enjoyed the immersive experience. I was talking in Russian the whole time! It made me feel like Russian was more accessible language. I really hope to master the basics to communicate my ideas effectively, even if I still make some errors.”

What did you like best about the first day of the program? Leave a comment below or on our social media using #STARTALK_UCF_2019 


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