UAlbany Summer: PhD Student Teaches In-Demand Languages to High Schoolers, Refugees

A woman, Maria Goebert, is seated in front of a computer screen in an office. She smiles and holds a white cardboard cutout featuring Russian phrases drawn on in marker over her head.
Maria Goebert, a PhD candidate in Curriculum and Instruction at UAlbany, taught Russian to high schoolers from across the U.S. this summer through the government-sponsored STARTALK program.

By Bethany Bump

ALBANY, N.Y. (Sept. 12, 2023) — As a teenager, Maria Goebert had the chance to leave her native Russia and live abroad in the U.S. for a year with a host family, learning the English language and American culture through the government-sponsored Future Leaders Exchange Program.

“I sincerely believe I would not be where I’m at if not for participation in a program like that,” she said. “I will be forever grateful.”

Goebert, who is starting a PhD program in Curriculum and Instruction and teaching intermediate Russian at UAlbany this fall, became interested in studying and teaching world languages from a young age as a result of the experience. She studied English and French, and completed her undergraduate degree in linguistics and intercultural communication.

She went on to teach French and Russian to public school students in the U.S. and later with the Defense Language Institute, which provides rigorous foreign language instruction in support of U.S. Department of Defense goals.

This summer, Goebert participated in two programs designed to furnish students and refugees with foreign language skills. Through STARTALK, a federal grant program managed and funded by the National Security Agency, she participated in a virtual summer camp teaching beginner Russian to high schoolers from across the U.S. She also worked with the nonprofit Tutors4Ukraine to provide English language instruction to Ukrainian refugees across the globe.

“I’ve always been interested in languages and since I moved here I’ve seen it as my mission to help bring it to as many people as possible,” she said. “I think both students in schools and university students should at least have an option to study foreign languages because there’s just so many benefits.”

The government funds STARTALK at participating schools and colleges as part of its effort to boost proficiency in languages it has identified as “critical need” — including Russian, Arabic, Chinese, Korean and Portuguese. Both summer and yearlong programs are offered.

“I think the government realized we need as many people as possible speaking these languages,” Goebert said. “It’s not a secret that language study in America is not as developed as in many European countries, and programs like this can hopefully help fill that gap.”

Goebert said many of her students were interested in learning Russian out of a natural curiosity they had for other languages and cultures, while some also saw the benefit to potential future career opportunities.

Learning a foreign language doesn’t just provide direct career benefits, she noted, but softer skills, as well, such as flexibility, communication and open mindedness.

“Those students were absolutely incredible,” she said. “I just see it as a huge honor to teach them.”

With Tutors4Ukraine Goesbert taught English to adult Ukrainian refugees who have been displaced around the globe and are now underemployed in jobs that don’t utilize their skills or experience.

“It's a story that happens a lot with immigrants,” she said. “I have students who were, you know, an accountant and financial analyst in Ukraine and then they end up somewhere like in Ireland, and now all of a sudden they have to take jobs that they would not normally have because they don't know the language.”

For those who may be interested in volunteering but are reluctant because they lack teaching experience, Goebert noted that the program is seeking mentors to pair with refugees for less intensive, one-on-one conversational speaking classes.

Goebert plans to take her experiences this summer with her as she embarks on her PhD studies this fall.

“Education is such a practice-based field that it's really hard to research education without being actively involved in it,” she said. “And being involved in different aspects of it makes you hone your craft. So being able to teach Russian to beginner students in high school and being able to teach English to adult students with all different levels of language — I found that really fulfilling for myself. I feel like I'm fulfilling an important mission of sharing language, but also I, myself, am growing along the way.”