Professor becomes pupil

How do you say “role reversal” in Russian?

Thanks to the teaching of one of her students, Associate Professor of History Sandra Mathews-Benham (‘86) can tell you. “It’s Обмен ролями.”

In an unusual twist, Mathews-Benham found herself taking lessons from one of her students last semester: Gulbanu Ibragimkyzy, an exchange student from Kyzylorda, Kazakhstan. It began when Ibragimkyzy stopped by her office to ask for additional background material on U.S. history. “Exchange students know they don’t know our history,” Mathews-Benham said. “And they usually work harder to understand it than my other students.”

While visiting, she asked Ibragimkyzy about life in Kazakhstan and mentioned the Russian class she took as a Nebraska Wesleyan student in the mid-1980s. “Of course, I remembered nothing from it.”

Ibragimkyzy agreed to help her professor take another crack at Russian, and the two spent roughly six hours a week on it. They started with the alphabet, then moved on to basic words. She had flashcards, regular homework, even tests.

When Mathews-Benham would mispronounce a Russian word, she’d bark, “Repeat again!” until her pupil got it right. “She’s a serious teacher,” said Mathews-Benham.

So serious that on the same day she took Mathews-Benham’s history final, she administered her own. (Both pupils passed.)

“Part of being a learner is believing in yourself,” said Ibragimkyzy, who fluently speaks three languages and began learning two others—Spanish and French—while at NWU. “I know how hard it is to pick up a new language. It took me six years to learn English.”

Ibragimkyzy’s return to Kazakhstan hasn’t marked the end of their relationship. The lessons continue now over Skype, and Mathews-Benham keeps plodding her way through her 40-chapter Russian textbook. “After I get through that textbook,” she said, “I want to go visit her in Kazakhstan.”