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Russian language study in the USSR on the rise for US college students

`I DON'T know one of them who isn't changed,'' says Karen Black of the American students who study Russian in the Soviet Union. As Middlebury College's resident adviser for the 1986-87 academic year at the Pushkin Institute in Moscow, she has good reason to know. The competition to study Russian in the USSR is getting stiffer, illustrating a recent surge in interest. For each of the 45 available spots in the 1987 spring semester program sponsored by the American Council of Teachers of Russian, six students applied. From 1980 to 1986, ACTR saw a 50 percent increase in applicants, says Dan Davidson, chairman of the Russian Language and Literature Department at Bryn Mawr College and director of ACTR's exchange programs.

This growth has been significantly influenced by the Soviet Union's present political atmosphere. Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev's reforms of glasnost (openness) and perestroika (restructuring) have piqued students' interest, says Vicki Yehling, program assistant at the New York-based Council on International Educational Exchange (CIEE). More job opportunities are opening in business and cultural fields that deal with the USSR, she says, bringing the importance of superior language skills sharply into focus.

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The Modern Language Association reports that enrollment for Russian language courses in graduate and undergraduate programs throughout the United States has increased more than 10 percent since 1983. ``People are coming to realize that [Russian] is more important than other languages,'' says Frank Miller, coordinator of Russian language studies at Columbia University. ``The Soviet Union is a very dynamic place now.''

``At my university, Russian is taught as if it were Latin - a dead language,'' says Robert Wessling, a Slavic languages and literature major. ``I had taken [Russian] in high school and 2 years in college. But I really couldn't speak to anyone. It was very frustrating.''

Mr. Wessling studied in the ACTR program at the Pushkin Institute in Moscow. ``Their teaching style was the exact opposite of what I had gotten in college, which was good for me,'' he says. ``When you go over there, they just want you to talk.''

Language programs in the Soviet Union are all similar, focusing on Russian grammar, phonetics, oral practice, analytical reading, and translation. The Americans have classes together in small groups, taught completely in Russian by Soviet instructors. Semester programs require that a student have the equivalency of three years of college Russian.

Benjamin Nathans, a graduate student of Russian history at the University of California, Berkeley, spent the 1987 spring semester in the CIEE program at Leningrad State University. He primarily wanted, like most applicants, to improve his Russian. But the exchange program shifted his focus.

``When I got there, I found that the people I got involved with were by far the most important thing - just learning from them. It became a much more personal thing,'' he says. ``Before I left [the US] I had a vague sense of Soviet society ... but I couldn't have had any idea of the people I got involved with'' in the USSR.

He says that he chose the CIEE program because he wanted to live with Soviet students in a Soviet dormitory - an opportunity offered only by CIEE. American students are arranged in two-room blocks with five students per block: two Soviets and three Americans.

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``I didn't want the `herd effect' of living primarily with foreigners,'' he explains. ``The danger is to have 50 Americans study and meet together. That way they just reinforce their own prejudices. But I think CIEE handled it perfectly.''

Since the Pushkin Institute is a Russian-language school geared for foreigners, all students live together in a dormitory on the Moscow campus. Besides ACTR and Middlebury College students, the institute also houses a program sponsored by an Ohio State University/Purdue University consortium.

More than improved language skills and an understanding of the USSR, studying there gives students an increased appreciation for the US. ``I am much more optimistic about the changes the individual American can effect in his or her own society,'' says Nina Schwalbe, a 1987 ACTR participant. ``It was extremely frustrating there - you were really an observer. ... But I would be extremely frustrated if I was a Soviet, too. It's just very hard to influence change.''

There just isn't enough room to send all of the qualified applicants. ``There are so few places for an American to study in a serious way [in the USSR]. The demand is too great,'' says Thomas Beyer, dean of Middlebury College's Russian School. ``There are no more than 200 American students in the USSR in any given semester. That figure ought to be frightening when you consider the importance of the Soviet Union.''

The misnomer ``exchange'' also presents a problem, since undergraduate Soviet students have almost no opportunity to study in the United States. Professor Beyer is concerned about this. ``I don't see any chances to move the USSR rapidly and effectively into the 21st century without providing the opportunity for Soviets to study in the United States,'' he says.

Since 1974, the State University of New York has conducted the only true ``exchange'' for undergraduates, whereby 10 Soviet students come to the US each year. But, according to Professor Davidson, in June ACTR signed a formal agreement with the Soviet Ministry of Education providing for the bilateral exchange of undergraduates.

No specific host institution has been chosen, but the agreement will give 15 undergraduate English majors from the Soviet Union the chance to study in the US each year.

For the American students who study in the USSR, the experience is memorable. Says Mr. Nathans: ``I was given a lot to chew on, but I don't think I've exhausted it. What I saw only made me more eager to go back for a longer period. I can't say there was a single day there when I didn't think of a way to get back.''

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