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Ask Away: 5 Questions for an University of Montana Student Learning Russian


We’re asking students, teachers, and counselors five questions on how languages play a role in shaping personal and professional success…

Meet Katie—a student of Russian who aspires to work internationally in environmental development, through USAID or another government agency.

"Ask Away: 5 Questions" banner image with Katie photo

1. What was your first experience learning a language other than English—when did you start and how?

I began learning French my freshman year of high school. It was either that or Spanish, and I figured I drove to Canada more than I traveled to Mexico. During the first year, we had a teacher who left some students feeling frustrated and not enthused. I was eager to learn more, so I wanted to connect with a teacher who would encourage that.

2. What inspired and motivated you to keep learning the language?

The next year, we welcomed a new teacher from Wisconsin. Through her outlandish enthusiasm for learning languages, she inspired me and many others to continue with the program until graduation.

It was challenging, as I wouldn’t consider myself a “language person,” but it gave me a sense of accomplishment knowing I had made it to somewhat conversational French. As I reconsidered languages in college, I realized French would not be that useful for me because I wanted to work in Far Eastern Russia or Central Asia. I had fallen in love with the wild cats of these areas and set my heart to work on conserving them and their habitat. So, I began learning Russian at the University of Montana.

Through the help of many dedicated professors, I received a National Security Education Program’s Boren Scholarship to study Russian in Kyrgyzstan for an entire year. During the program, I volunteered with Panthera, an organization working globally on big cat conservation and locally on snow leopard preservation.

I used Russian almost exclusively in the office and every day out in the field.

3. Have there been times you struggled with aspects of learning a new language, and how did you overcome them?

When I began learning Russian at my university, I thought I would never make it. Just the alphabet alone frightened me. On top of a full course load of classes with the College of Forestry and Conservation, I felt I never had enough time to complete the homework, let alone memorize all the vocabulary.

When I arrived in Kyrgyzstan and stepped through the door of my host family’s apartment, my limited Russian became apparent. Almost six months passed by before I felt comfortable enough to speak freely. It was another four months before I felt conversationally fluent.

I just kept telling myself that as long as I kept trying, I would eventually have to learn it. So, I just kept at it every day.

Katie in the mountains

4. What role do language and cultural skills play in your current work?

I am now working as a temporary researcher for Panthera, determining the status of snow leopard trafficking in Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Kazakhstan.

My use of Russian is limited at the time, as I am still finishing undergrad, but I have plans to return to Central Asia this fall to complete a research project. Through the project, I will travel to different parts of the Pamir Mountains in Tajikistan and conduct a series of workshops, interviews, and surveys with the local people to determine where and how wildlife conflicts (e.g. snow leopard attacks on livestock) are occurring. Then we will work together to come up with management plans that could mitigate these issues.

5. Could you share with us a favorite conversation or moment that took place in Russian—why is it special or memorable to you?

I was sitting with my host family in the kitchen and my host dad was complaining that his back was sore. I mentioned the cause could be from sitting so much at work with poor posture. I wanted to suggest he should use a large exercise ball (myach) for a chair, but instead instructed that a mech should do the trick.

Mech means sword.

At first, they were so confused but then realized what I meant when I motioned in circles with my hands. We cried laughing for about 20 minutes.

BONUS QUESTION: What’s your favorite word or expression in another language? (Why, and what does it mean?)

Ostorozhno. It was the word I heard most frequently when I was in Kyrgyzstan and was so annoyed with by the time I left. But every time I hear it now, I am reminded of so many caring people who live in Kyrgyzstan. The word means “be careful.”


Check out the Lead with Russian page for resources on college programs, scholarship opportunities, student testimonials, as well as our Grants and Scholarships page for information on federal funding opportunities like the Boren Scholarship.

And, as always, don’t forget to share your language learning story @LeadWLanguages on social media!