Between Pittsburgh and Podgorica: Jon Harris’ Intensive Study of BCS

Jon Harris is an MA student at the Center for Slavic and East European Studies. He recieved a 2016 summer FLAS fellowship to learn Bosnian-Serbian-Croatian (BCS). He spent the summer between the University of Pittsburgh’s Summer Language Institute (SLI) and the University of Donja Gorica (UDG) in Podgorica, Montenegro, improving his language skills and experiencing the culture of each place. 

Seven students sitting on a stone embankments with a tower in the bacground

Mount Lovcen

“I participated in an intensive ten-week course at the University of Pittsburgh’s Summer Language Institute (SLI), which is renowned for offering critical and less commonly taught languages. One of the many strengths of this particular program is that language courses are offered in a hybrid format, which allows students to combine six weeks of domestic study at the Pitt campus with an optional four-week study abroad component. As such, my time was split between the University of Pittsburgh and the University of Donja Gorica (UDG) in Podgorica, Montenegro.

The structure of this program was highly beneficial in that I completed one academic year’s worth of language training at Pitt prior to departing for Podgorica. Therefore, when I arrived in Montenegro, I was able to converse with a greater degree of fluency across a wider range of topics. This truly allowed for me to make the most of my time spent abroad.

As a person from the Buckeye State, I had been conditioned to scowl at the sight of black, yellow, and all things pertaining to Pittsburgh. However, after putting aside deep-seated sports rivalries, I began to fall in love with the Steel City. Pittsburgh is nothing if not beautiful; situated in the foothills of the Allegheny Mountains, there is no shortage of breathtaking vantage points to take in the best views of the city’s forests and rivers.

Stack of different books

BCS textbooks

Despite the urban setting of the University of Pittsburgh, there are plenty of green spaces for recreation and relaxation between classes. The crowning gem of the Pitt campus is, unmistakably, the Cathedral of Learning, a Late Gothic Revival cathedral standing at 535 feet. Every morning for six weeks, I attended classes in the basement of this iconic, towering edifice. Upon entering the threshold of the building, the intellectual atmosphere permeating the Cathedral of Learning becomes instantly palpable, as if one is carrying the torch of an academic tradition larger than him or herself. The Cathedral is also home to the widely known Nationality Rooms in which artifacts from 30 different nationalities are continually on display.

In addition to 180 hours of classroom instruction, SLI provided ample opportunities for language learning in informal social settings. Pizza Tuesdays, Lunch with the Instructors Thursdays, and Film Fridays allotted time for students to practice their respective target languages in a fun, carefree manner. At the end of each week, all SLI students would congregate for Language Happy Hour, a weekly picnic hosted by students and instructors of the various language groups. The South Slavic language group, represented by students of BCS and Bulgarian, prepared traditional food and drink for the event in addition to performing songs and dances.

A bright green boat off of a dock in a lake that is reflecting the surrounding mountains and trees

Black lake in National Park Durmitor

Studying BCS—or any Slavic language, for that matter—in Pittsburgh is particularly beneficial. Owing largely to the legacy of the early U.S. steel industry, the Slavic communities within Pittsburgh are strikingly visible. For the duration of my stay in Pittsburgh, I resided in the picturesque Polish Hill, a thriving neighborhood replete with Polish delis and a Catholic church. I ate ćevapi, somun, and ajvar at the Bosnian markets; I attended an all-Croatian mass at St. Nicholas Catholic Church; and I even heard a sermon in Russian at the Дом молитвы для всех. Upon becoming a member of the Carnegie Public Library, I had a seemingly infinite reserve of BCS grammar textbooks at my disposal. For these reasons, the initial six weeks spent in Pittsburgh prepared me exceedingly well for the transition to Podgorica.

In my experience, academic and otherwise, Montenegro is often overshadowed by her Balkan brothers of Bosnia, Croatia, and Serbia. When I arrived in Podgorica, the capital of this small, mountainous country, the air bustled with patriotic fervor in both celebration of ten years of national independence and the 2016 Rio Olympic Games. Prior to studying abroad in Montenegro, I had never heard anybody, personally, refer to their mother tongue as crnogorski (Montenegrin). The unique Serbo-Croatian dialects spoken in Montenegro were traditionally referred to as Serbian; however, in the wake of national independence, the Montenegrin variant is becoming more and more standardized. As a student of the Balkans, this was exciting to witness firsthand.

For four weeks, I studied BCS with six other students from Pitt at UDG, the largest private university in Montenegro. Because I was the only advanced-level student, UDG provided me with one-on-one tutoring sessions prior to our normal classes. This month-long course emphasized practical BCS, which was particularly useful for navigating daily interactions at restaurants, stores, and on the streets.

Wide green valley

View from Tara Bridge in Zabljak

Language instruction and cultural lessons took place not only within the classroom but also outdoors. Our instructor devised a curriculum that incorporated weekly excursions to the awe-inspiring national parks of Montenegro. We climbed the 461 steps of Mount Lovćen to visit the Mausoleum of Petar II Petrović-Njegoš, the final resting place of the most revered Montenegrin writer and national hero. We spent an entire afternoon hiking around the turquoise glacial lakes of National Park Durmitor. Traveling along the Montenegrin Adriatic coast, we visited the exceptionally beautiful towns of Budva, Kotor, Perast, and Tivat. In Virpazar, we beheld the ancient ramparts of the Besac Fortress, which was built by Ottoman Turks at the end of the 15th century. Montenegro truly offers some of the most memorable landscapes in the world, too numerous to list here.

In both Pittsburgh and Podgorica, I dramatically improved my mastery of BCS, acquired new experiences, and made personal and professional connections that will last me a lifetime. I was so impacted by my time spent overseas that I am currently applying for career opportunities in Montenegro. As such, I wholeheartedly recommend Pitt’s SLI program, which offers approximately ten Slavic languages annually, to all future FLAS applicants.”

Alyssa Neville’s Sociological Research in Poland

Alyssa Neville is an undergraduate student at The Ohio State University studying Russian and Criminology. She was a recipient of the Polish Studies Initiative (PSI) 2016 summer scholarship. Read about her experience in Poland below.

“Over the summer I traveled to Warsaw, Łodz and Krakow, Poland on the Research Central and Eastern Europe in Comparative Studies Program. During this program I conducted a research project with the help of a multitude of dedicated professors, who are affiliated with OSU and the Polish Academy of Sciences, and completed three sociology courses.

In the course of the past three months, I have not only learned basic statistical skills that are useful for both research and other professional applications, but I have also increased my knowledge of Eastern Europe and Poland from a sociological point of view. Moreover, this experience provided a unique opportunity for guided research with professors who have experience in both teaching and conducting research. I went into this program with unsure feelings about completing a research project and surprisingly found that I thoroughly enjoyed the procedure. The process was expedited through the help of my professors in order to complete all of the necessary components in Poland, but it was a beneficial introduction into the world of research. Although it requires a lot of time and energy, it was tremendously satisfying to get positive results regarding my hypothesis, as well as to find interesting exceptions and anomalies that will hopefully be explained one day. Not only did I find that I enjoyed working with statistical data, but I now feel more confident in using statistical programs, such as STATA.

Using my newly acquired skills, I conducted a research experiment on POLPAN data, which is a survey administrated to Polish citizens every five years from 1988 until 2013. My project asked the question, “Are political biographies from the post socialist era in Poland influencing the Pole’s attitudes toward democracy?” In exploring this question with panel survey data, I also traced the social and political context by presenting how the political culture in Poland developed over the last twenty-five years in order to provided a glimpse of how individuals and social groups develop their ideals about democracy over their lifetimes.

Additionally, through this experience I gained confidence in my ability to navigate new countries, cultures and situations. I made meaningful relationships with Ohio State students and other students studying at the Academy of Sciences in Warsaw, as well as professional contacts and connections with my instructors in Warsaw. Furthermore, I travelled to both Łodz and Krakow during the program and to Prague in the Czech Republic after the program. Throughout these experiences I developed a sense of confidence in my ability to navigate social situations in which English was not the main language and international travel on a large scale.

Although this program had three in-country advisors there was a multitude of opportunities in which I could travel and experience situations on my own. I was essentially responsible for not only navigating the city transit system in order to get from class to my in-country residence, as well as providing most of my meals. This was an exceptionally challenging experience since I did not speak much Polish, but was even trickier when travelling to Prague where I knew no Czech. Ultimately, it was an extremely beneficial experience because it increased my self-confidence in my own ability to think critically and remain calm in stressful and complicated situations.

Overall, this was a well-rounded experience that provided practical experiences, which can be used in both the real and academic world, as well as unforgettable friends and memories that will have a lasting effect on me.”

Will Bezbatchenko’s Path to Central Asia

Will Bezbatchenko is a 2016 dual graduate of the Center for Slavic and East European Studies and the John Glenn College of Public Affairs. He is currently living and working in Tokmok, Kyrgyzstan as an English Teaching Assistant (ETA) Fulbright. 

A wide city street with vehicles on it with snowcapped mountains in the background

Will’s view on his way to work

An acquaintance once told me that you’re either born into a professional interest or you fall into it. In my case, it is a blend of both. My path to my work and studies of Central Asia was long and winding but I have found an area of the world I love to study, live, and work in. Growing up in Akron, Ohio, my family and I attended a Russian Orthodox Church. It was there that I was introduced to Russian culture through the foods we ate at holidays, and the church’s balalaika and folk dance groups. These experiences were very important when I decided to study Russian at the college level, seeing a Russian major as an opportunity to advance my career interests and learn more about my family’s background.

Initially enrolling at a different university, I transferred to The Ohio State University as an undergraduate student, first studying economics. After quickly learning that this area was not at the core of my interests, I decided to begin studying Russian and International Studies. By the time I was able to start studying Russian, however, I was already in my third year of college. Wanting to graduate with a Russian major, I studied abroad the next two summers to complete the equivalent of four years of in-class Russian instruction, traveling to Moscow and St. Petersburg in the summers of 2011 and 2012, respectively. These experiences gave me a wanderlust and since spending that first summer in Moscow, I have tried to leave the United States at least once per year.

A blue lake between mountains

Kul Tor

Graduate School at The Ohio State University

After I graduated from Ohio State in the spring of 2013, I wanted to continue my Russian studies, and saw an opportunity with Ohio State’s Center for Slavic and East European Studies. Not only was the program multidisciplinary, I was also able to complete a second at Ohio State’s John Glenn College of Public Affairs in three years rather than four through the Center and College’s dual-degree program. A combination that has prepared me for international work and (hopefully) a career in the United States State Department.

Having decided to enroll immediately after completing my undergraduate degree, I started the Slavic Studies and Public Administration programs in the fall of 2013. While it is not a requirement, it is highly recommended that students at the Slavic Center have knowledge of two or more languages before graduation. In high school I studied five years of Spanish (a language in Romantic language family), followed that with Russian (a Slavic), and wanted to study a Turkic language. Initially, I planned to study Turkish, but at the insistence of former Slavic Center Director Yana Hashamova, instead enrolled in Uzbek. At the time, I knew very little about Uzbekistan and Central Asia, but immediately became enamored by its diverse history, Imperial and Soviet Russian influences, and the countries’ divergent paths since independence.

A brigtly light blue and red stage with dancers

Cholpon Baller

Encouraged to apply to internships for the summer between my first and second years of graduate school, I applied for an internship with the US State Department in Uzbekistan. Correctly assuming I would be the only student applying with knowledge of Uzbek, I was offered an internship position in the political/economic section of the US Embassy in Tashkent. I accepted and spent the summer of 2014 in Tashkent, traveling throughout the country on my weekends. Not only did this experience further inform me about my future profession, it also exposed me to the region’s interconnectivity and the political problems that arise when infrastructure and communication paths meander between sovereign nations.


Unfortunately, the ETA grant is not offered in Uzbekistan, so I turned to the countries surrounding the nation when I applied for an English Teaching Assistant (ETA) Fulbright Grant. I cannot isolate one reason for why I applied to Kyrgyzstan, but my knowledge of the country’s development of electrical power dams that could have a negative effect on downstream communities in Uzbekistan, my thesis advisor’s research work in the country, and an interest in Kyrgyzstan’s nomadic and Sufi mysticism history all contributed. Obviously, I was awarded the grant and arrived in Bishkek in August, 2016.

A tall tower in the middle of a flat valley with mountains in the background

Burana Tower

Upon arrival, I moved to a small city on the border of Kazakhstan named Tokmok. Located about one hour away from Bishkek, I teach English at the International University of Central Asia, a private university founded in 2008. In addition to teaching, I have started an English conversation club at the university, and traveled to Bishkek, Cholpon-Ata, and other smaller cities to learn and experience Kyrgyz culture. Kyrgyz people (and especially my students) have been incredibly friendly and helpful, and the country as a whole has been extremely comfortable to live in. I have already been able to attend the World Nomad Games, a concert of traditional Kyrgyz and Central Asian music, and a Kyrgyz ballet. Needless to say, I have thoroughly enjoyed my experience in the region, and look forward to my remaining time in this beautiful country.

Learn more about Will’s work and travel in Kyrgyzstan on his blog

Amelia Smith practices Russian in Bishkek

Amelia Smith is a fourth year undergraduate student at The Ohio State University, studying Russian and French. She received a FLAS fellowship for the summer of 2016, which allowed her to spend the summer studying Russian language in Kyrgyzstan through Arizona State University’s CLI program for third-year Russian language. Below she reflects on her time in Kyrgyzstan.

Woman sitting on a rock ledge with a valley and streams below, her back to the camera

Amelia in Kyrgyzstan

“The people in Kyrgyzstan are more than enthusiastic to see someone from an English-speaking country, especially one who has mothered to learn some Russian or Kyrgyz. English is a language of opportunity for them, but surprisingly, almost no one is able to speak it (except for grade schoolers, for whom learning English has become more important in recent years). It forced me to actually speak Russian for most of the day, which was terrifying at first. As the weeks went on, however, I got used to the idea that I would make mistakes; people would know I was a foreigner, and that I should always keep my eyes and ears open for chances to improve. Coming back to the U.S. and entering fourth-year Russian, I actually feel comfortable at this level and quite prepared for our coursework.

The London School in Bishkek was the hub of our activities. About thirty or forty of us students, mostly from Arizona, studied for five hours for four days a week. Three times a week, we would then have a two-hour excursion into the city with Kyrgyz teenagers and speak solely in Russian. It gave me a chance to see the city and culture and, frankly, leave my comfort zone by choosing places that I would like to visit. All of the tutors and teachers I had were friendly and sweet, even if a few of them were a little intimidating.

My host family was also better than I had dared to hope. A single mother and her young son and daughter, they gave me the largest bedroom, the most food, and any other accommodations I wanted as the weeks progressed. At the end of Ramadan, they took me with them to partake in feasting that involved a lot of noodles and an entire sheep’s head on the table. Kyrgyz cuisine involves a lot of Uzbek, Russian, and Mongolian foods. I really enjoyed everything, except for shoro (a popular cold drink) and kumiss (fermented horse milk). On my birthday, my host mom bought me flowers, a cake, and some champagne (I turned 21) and celebrated with me. They were very sweet and intelligent people, willing to work with me through my lack of Russian knowledge.

Five people sitting together on a couch

Amelia with her host family

On three or four occasions, we had excursions through the London School to other parts of Kyrgyzstan. This may have been my favorite part of my time spent there. We visited the lake Issyk-Kul, one of the cleanest and highest-elevation lakes in the world. We went hiking to see waterfalls and canyons, rode horses in the mountains with a local family, and even visited Kazakhstan for a weekend to see Almaty. At these times, I was thrilled to be in Kyrgyzstan and be part of a culture that most Americans will never get to see.

The only complaints I had about the trip were simply cultural differences that took some getting used to, such as the European floor toilets, the uncomfortable marshrutka rides (the fixed-route taxi), the heat and lack of air conditioning, the air quality in Bishkek itself (there is a lot of traffic), and the water quality (we bought water bottles to drink from, as the tap water was unsafe). But again, these were all easily overcome with a little open-mindedness and patience. I made several American and Kyrgyz friends that I’m still in contact with now, too! This trip helped me grow as an individual, and I couldn’t be more thankful for this very special chance to see a hidden corner of the world and live in a different linguistic sphere.”

A field with large boulders, a stream running across, and bright blue sky in the background