Speaking Up: Critical Language Study in Russia
For me, the process of studying a foreign language is incomplete without a language immersion experience abroad. Living and studying in Russia improved my Russian language skills and enhanced my knowledge of a wonderful culture.
After my sophomore year in college, I participated in a study abroad program in Guayaquil, Ecuador. The experience taught me that while physical accessibility abroad may not compare to that in the United States, planning for and accepting help in otherwise inaccessible places makes a rich experience even more rewarding. Four years later, as a graduate student, I felt confident that I could study abroad in Russia and was looking into ways to afford a quality experience to complement my Russian language classes at the University of Chicago. I was thrilled to apply for and receive a U.S. Department of State Critical Language Scholarship (CLS) to study abroad in Samara, Russia. The CLS program covers all participant expenses and provides excellent, group-based intensive language instruction. It is an ideal program for serious language scholars.
Originally, I was slated to attend the CLS summer language institute in Nizhny Novgorod, but CLS program administrators in Russia found better wheelchair accessibility and living arrangements at the program site in the city of Samara, on the Volga River. They worked with the independent living center there to hire personal care attendants and a car and driver. I also lived at the center and was able to help with some of the center’s work, including translating a grant application from English to Russian.
I had good luck getting taxis to take me places in and around Samara. Since my wheelchair has a removable seat and back, I was able to bring those with me into the taxi and put the folded chair in the trunk. I also had a regular driver who took me to and from school daily and on program-related excursions as a reasonable accommodation in place of inaccessible transportation. The driver had a spinal cord injury and used a car with hand controls. He was quite a mechanic and did some excellent wheelchair repairs for me when I needed them.
At Samara State University, all classrooms, including those used for my language courses, were on the second floor in a building that did not have an elevator. Language lab electronic equipment in place meant that we could not move to a ground floor room. As an alternative, my attendant and either the Russian site director or the American group leader would carry me, and then my manual wheelchair, up and down the stairs each day. (I left my power chair at home in Chicago.) The Russian director’s young son was always excited to see me and tried to help in every way possible, by pushing my wheelchair or trying to lift it up or down the stairs.
The twenty American students in the CLS program in Samara were divided into three groups for classes. The instructors were very friendly and classroom conversations often were quite lively. Most of the instructors did not speak English, which added to our ability to develop thinking skills in Russian.
At the end of our time in Samara, we took a boat trip on the Volga River to the city of Kazan. At night, there were shows and dancing on one of the decks of the boat, and we had small cabins for sleeping. Kazan is a very beautiful city and we were able to visit one of its many mosques.
At both the beginning and end of the program, we spent a few days in St. Petersburg where we visited the Hermitage Museum and one of Dostoyevsky’s apartments. We also went on a tour of places featured in the book, Crime and Punishment – a highlight of the trip for me.
I found that Russia, in general, is not a very wheelchair accessible country, even compared to my previous study abroad experience in Ecuador. I needed to ask for assistance climbing stairs, navigating curbs and so forth. Nonetheless, the CLS Russian Program director and the CLS program managers in Washington, DC, did a very good job of setting up the program for me, consulting with me about my disability-related needs, and including me in program excursions and cultural activities. The intensive logistical planning of the program coordinators allowed the experience to be very rewarding and my Russian language skills are much improved as a result.
The Critical Language Scholarship (CLS) Program provides intensive language training and immersion study abroad opportunities for U.S. undergraduate and graduate students to improve their proficiency in Arabic, Chinese, Indic, Korean, Persian, Russian and Turkish languages/language families.