On March 19, 60 students from four high schools and community-based Russian programs traveled to Champaign, IL to participate in the second autonomous Illinois ACTR Olympiada of Spoken Russian. This event represents one of about 15 annual regional pre-college Russian language competitions across the United States under the auspices of the American Council of Teachers of Russian (ACTR). Each student prepares for individual conversations with three judges who assess and grade their knowledge and language proficiency in the following categories: everyday conversation, recitation of a poem and discussion surrounding a prepared text, and Russian civilization. In addition to demonstrating their language skills and cultural proficiency, the Olympiada provided participants the opportunity to network with students and teachers of Russian from other schools, to watch a Russian film (Kavkazskiy Plennik), and to hear a short presentation by David Cooper, Director of the Russian, East European and Eurasian Center (REEEC) and Associate Professor of Slavic Languages and Literatures at the University of Illinois.
Professor Cooper discussed opportunities and benefits for students who continue to study Russian at the college level. He described the programs for Russian language at UIUC and UChicago, highlighting that both universities offer 5+ years of Russian and study abroad programs as well as the potential for financial support offered through the Foreign Language and Area Studies (FLAS) scholarships at UIUC and other Title VI centers. He identified the most popular majors for students who study the Russian language, such as Slavic Languages and Literatures, Russian and East European Studies, Political Science, and History, but also noted that students combine their study of Russian with numerous fields of study, such as engineering, agriculture, and education. This combination of language and area studies with another area of specialization can be a powerful tool on the job market and open doors and opportunities for working within numerous industries from international NGOs and humanitarian work to finance and global business.
This year’s Olympiada and was again a collaborative effort of the University of Chicago Center for East European and Russian/Eurasian Studies (CEERES) and the University of Illinois Russian, East European and Eurasian Center (REEEC). Meredith Clason (Associate Director of CEERES) served as the state chair and was honored to work with an expert panel of judges, all of whom are experienced instructors of Russian at the University of Illinois: Irina Avkhimovich, Laura Davies Brenier, Maria Fedjanina, Nadia Hoppe, Alejandra Pires, and Morgan Shafter. Samantha Celmer, the Outreach Coordinator of REEEC, did a brilliant job of organizing this year’s Olympiada, with wisdom and guidance from Maureen Marshall, the new Associate Director of REEEC. The day could not have been better planned or run more smoothly. I also want to acknowledge Mark Trotter, the Olympiada National Co-Chair, who patiently answered at least 100 questions along the way.
It was a joy to host this group of students; they competed bravely, performed brilliantly, and were professional and courteous. The students represented three high schools: Pritzker College Prep (teachers: Phillip Stosberg, Rebecca Kaegi and Lauren Nelson), Noble Street College Prep (teacher: Paco Picon), and Glenbrook North High School (teacher: Svetlana Borisova), and a community-based school, By the Onion Sea (teacher: Julia Denne).
At each regional Olympiada an outstanding contestant in both the regular and heritage categories is chosen for special recognition in the form of a book prize and letter from the ACTR President, Dan Davidson. This year, both Outstanding Achievement Awards went to students from By the Onion Sea: Amelia Parkes received the honor in the regular student category, and Katherine Edwards in the heritage student category.
To all of the students, teachers, parents, judges, volunteers – with special thanks to Mark Trotter, Sam Celmer, Maureen Marshall, and David Cooper – I extend my gratitude and congratulations for your patience, your time, your hard work, your expertise, your talent and your love of Russian language and culture.
Meredith Clason is the Associate Director for the Center for East European and Russian/Eurasian Studies at the University of Chicago.