Story and photos by JAVAN RIVERA
Natalya Sergeyevna Nizkaya has been interested in foreign languages and their mechanics since her childhood.
Growing up in the Amur region of Russia that borders China, she harbored a desire to work with languages from around the world.
“I’ve wanted to connect my future life with languages since I was in the fifth grade,” Nizkaya said.
Nizkaya, 30, has studied five languages and currently is a teaching assistant in the University of Utah Department of Languages and Literature and is also a graduate student. She speaks English and Russian fluently and has experience in both Turkish and Chinese. She also has just begun studying Arabic.
Nizkaya’s master’s program work is based in the university’s Comparative Literary and Cultural Studies program (CLCS), and focuses on the Russian translation of African American literature. A paper she wrote in her first fall semester about a Toni Morrison novel inspired her work.
The time Nizkaya has been able to study and help teach in Utah has provided her with the opportunity to further her own linguistic knowledge and to inspire the same love for foreign languages in her students. She has accomplished this through the classes she teaches and a conversational group that she founded at the university.
In an interview Nizkaya talked about the impact she’s had on some students who have taken her Russian-language courses, citing one student who changed his major from mathematics to linguistics.
“When I heard about this, I thought ‘wow.’ It was very rewarding for me,” Nizkaya said. “Part of it was probably the Russian class that inspired him.”
Nizkaya was interested in creating a language-based activity on campus and was given an idea by her supervisor, Rimma Garn, who has a doctorate in Slavic languages and literature. This brought about the creation of the Russian Table.
The Russian Table consists of students from all Russian-language classes ranging from first- to third-year fluency. The group has eight to 10 regular attendees this semester, but that’s not how it began.
Nizkaya said that when the group began it was extremely large, but it quickly dwindled to only four students. They would meet and talk about random subjects in Russian. She said the whole idea of the group was to “break class walls.”
“It was great to see first-year students participating when they could hear and understand words,” said Maria Fedorovna Rezunenko during a Skype interview. She was one of Nizkaya’s colleagues and was also placed in Utah as a foreign-language teaching assistant.
Both Nizkaya and Rezunenko were placed at the U through the Fulbright Institute of International Education. One of Fulbright’s programs works to match foreign-language speakers with universities where they can help teach. For Nizkaya, it was a perfect fit.
“She tried to deepen her knowledge of foreign language,” Rezunenko said.
Nizkaya described how the Russian school system differs from its American counterpart and said she spent five years mastering English while also studying German. The system now mirrors the American degree system, but during Nizkaya’s time at Amur State University it was under the old system that revolved around five-year specialties.
By the time she graduated in 2004, she was qualified as both an interpreter and translator in English and Russian and had a specialty, the American equivalent to a major, in linguistics and intercultural communication.
Nizkaya wanted to apply this knowledge somewhere. An opportunity presented itself in 2007 when she participated in an exchange program between her university in Blagoveshchensk and Jackson State University in Mississippi.
The program consisted of teaching English as a second language and helping students to prepare for the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL). The program offered Nizkaya a chance to practice the skills she had learned in her schooling in Russia, and created a desire to do more work in America.
“When I came home, I was already thinking of what other ways I could go to the States,” Nizkaya said.
This led to her eventually teaching Russian at the University of Utah in fall 2009. It was here that she first met Rezunenko in person, though they had been in communication online for some time.
“It was amazing,” Rezunenko said, describing the program. “It was teaching us to teach.”
She said the forms of teaching in the Russian school system are different, and that their supervisor wanted them to teach the classes in a more “American style.” She feels this benefited both herself and Nizkaya.
While the work has allowed Nizkaya to impact her students, she now looks to her future, both in finishing her master’s degree at the U as well as her career path outside of academia.
Yet even as these studies come to a close, Nizkaya said how proud she is of everything she has accomplished thus far in her academic career both as a student and a teacher.
“That I’m here now,” Nizkaya said. “That’s already an achievement and I’m proud of it.”